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What Makes It Great?: "Nowadays" from CHICAGO

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This is the second entry in my blog series whose title, “What Makes It Great,” is based on that of a now-defunct regular feature of a classical radio station in Washington, DC. The present subject is an iconic Bob Fosse number from the ever-popular John Kander/Fred Ebb musical Chicago: “Nowadays,” first performed on Broadway (in 1975) by Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly and Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart. Having finally been acquitted of murdering her husband in Jazz Age Chicago, Roxie laments that her notoriety was so short lived; she proceeds to revive it by taking to the vaudeville circuit with fellow killer Velma. (Chicago satirizes and indicts the very idea of a “celebrity criminal.”) The first video below is the number as heard on the 1997 Broadway revival-cast recording of Chicago; Bebe Neuwirth is Velma and Ann Reinking Roxie. The second video–because “Nowadays” can't really be discussed apart from its typical choreography–shows Rivera and Verdon in a truncated version of the number, on “The Mike Douglas Show” circa 1976: ("Nowadays," 1997 revival cast)

Clearly, there are two components to the greatness of “Nowadays”–the musical and the choreographic. Since this is a music website, I’ll deal with the former component first. One of the joys of listening to a Broadway score lies in hearing how the composer succeeded in evoking the time and the place in which his show is set. (By contrast, an operatic score tends to evoke only the place and time in which it was written; Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, for instance, sounds not like medieval Scotland but like nineteenth-century Italy.) Though “pastiche”--the capturing of past musical styles--has been an aspect of the Broadway musical at least since the Rodgers and Hammerstein era (1940's-1950's), the 1960's saw the initial hits of several composers particularly adept at it; John Kander, whose first of many successes with lyricist Fred Ebb was Cabaret in 1966, was a master of pastiche.

Kander and Ebb’s score for Cabaret “sounds like” Berlin, Germany in the 1920's; Chicago–itself structured like a vaudeville show–consists entirely of songs that sound “lifted” from an American vaudeville program of the same decade. That ragtime is the style of "Nowadays" should be obvious to any musically informed listener -- though, thanks to Ebb’s sinuous lyric, the song is ragtime with a difference, no more stuck in the past than are any of the songs in Cabaret. For instance...

You can like the life you’re livin’
You can live the life you like.
You can even marry Harry
But mess around with Ike!

Here the alliterative l's and m's, long i's and a's (“like,” “life,” “marry,” “Harry”) wrap themselves around a melody that sounds tailored to the slow and synchronous movements of Bob Fosse’s choreography; one can virtually “hear” a sly turn of the head and wink at “mess around with Ike,” or slinky torso and shoulder motions at “In fifty years or so/It’s gonna change, you know.” Then there is the effective “build” of the monosyllabic words “good,” “grand,” “great,” and (easiest of all to sing on a high note) “fun,” culminating in the sliding effect of “heaven” and “nowadays”; music and words “slide” together. Not only the lyric but also the orchestration makes the difference between an “old fashioned” number and the kind of “period” number to which a “contemporary” audience would respond: as heard between 4:32 and 4:34 of the first video, a bass clarinet slithers alluringly beneath the voices, and the instrumentation as a whole is as varied and vivid as it should have been in a 1970's Broadway show. If the test of a great song is its timelessness, then “Nowadays”–which evokes the past even as it scintillates in the present–passes the test.

“Scintillating” is also a good word for the staging; what both the melody and the orchestration of “Nowadays” bring to mind is the typical “Fosse pose”of hips thrust suggestively, feet aligned, hat on (or over) head–or the characteristic “Fosse moves,” re-created in every Chicago revival. The pose can be seen (at 0:24-0:27) in the second video, and the whole performance suggests that the success of the staging depends upon the movements of the two dancers being perfectly in sync; those measured, deliberate, “tight” gestures and steps can fascinate only if they are together. Likewise, the distinction of “Nowadays” as a musical number lies in the fact that it is all of a piece, its various elements–melody, lyric, orchestration, choreography–coordinated ideally. This degree of coordination was perhaps possible only in the Broadway of the 1970's, which saw the rise of director-choreographers like Fosse just as post-War Broadway had seen the working relationship between a musical’s librettist, lyricist, composer, choreographer, and director growing ever closer. Kander, Ebb, and Fosse (as well as Verdon and Rivera) were all talented individuals with inimitable styles, but finally it is the unity of its component parts that makes “Nowadays” iconic -- and great.
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Updated Jan-06-2018 at 21:25 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Other , Composers , Recorded Music