Wednesday, September 18, 2013

If It's Uncoverable, It's Not Good Art

Sorry about the lack of blog on Monday! Between the women's retreat I was at all weekend and super bad arthritis, I never got around to writing anything up. Let's get back in the swing of things!

Someone recently posted a news update on the live production of The Sound of Music that NBC is airing in December. The production is set to star Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer, along with Broadway veterans like Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle.

A sample of a few of the comments on the blog post:
",no, no.  This is one of the most revered musicals ever to appear on the Broadway stage and Julie Andrews is iconic... If it ain't broke. don't fix it."
"I really need the remakes to stop. If we, the people, could come up with a list of movies that shouldn't be touched, this would be on it."
"Sure Carrie Underwood has a good voice and she seems likeable and what-have-you, but she is not Julie Andrews. No one is."
"What's next: ABC remaking Gone With the Wind with Lindsay Lohan in the role of Scarlett?  Leave well enough alone.  Just because networks can't find good, solid material for a film shouldn't give them license to attempt a remake of something that is already, to quote Mary Poppins, 'practically perfect in every way.' The end."
All these comments kind of really ticked me off. And I shall explain why.

This series of blog comments helped to highlight the key reason for something I've believed for a long time, that all art is coverable. This is especially controversial when it comes to songs and movies. I have heard people adamantly argue that certain artists are simply "uncoverable," or that a movie should never be remade, and I just don't think that makes any sense.

So what's this key reason I believe in this?

Because I view art from the perspective of the theater.

Theatrical art is never meant to be "one and done." The idea is for multiple productions to exist, with multiple directors, a variety of actors playing the roles, with new take after new take on the story and the content. If "iconic" performances yielded the end of the show because there simply couldn't be any more performances after that, most of the shows we see on Broadway today would have ended years and years ago. Revivals wouldn't even exist. Every show could be performed until it was excellent, and then it would have to be retired, because nobody could touch that performance.

This makes zero sense to me.

Part of the beautiful thing about theater is that every production you see is different. Taking on an iconic role is a whole new impressive level of artistry in and of itself, as you try to show off what you see in the role while playing to an audience that may only remember your predecessor. As an audience member, seeing multiple productions of the same show brings new levels of appreciation for the show itself. Each production gives me the opportunity to see a new take on it, to find new meaning, to suddenly realize the beauty of a character or a song I hadn't noticed before.

Proclaiming a show "finished" or "untouchable" because you've found your favorite version is absurd.

But people do this with songs and movies all the time.

I believe art can be bigger than the initial creator or creator's intentions. I believe it can have more depth and more meaning than the author knew, and when viewed through the lens of another artist, we can find that extra depth.

If we argue that other artists should never cover our favorites' work, what we are in essence saying is that we think there is absolutely no more to be gotten from this piece of art.

There is no secondary context a new filmmaker could pull from it.

There is no more light to be shone on that second verse.

This one finite performance is all that this piece can ever be.

In short, this piece of art is not good enough to extend beyond this performance.

I'd argue the only uncoverable songs are those that are not strong enough to stand being ripped apart from their original artists. I'd argue the only unremakable movies are the ones that rely so heavily on the charisma of the original actors that there is no substance beyond that (and, honestly, even then, it could be remade because you have the freedom to try to make it better with a rewrite).

Am I free to dislike these revamped versions, or to say that they pale in comparison to the original, or to be skeptical of their ability to improve upon the original? Of course I can do any of those things. But if that happens, it generally means one of two things. Either 1) the execution was poor anyway, and I would have disliked it even if I disliked the original, or 2) the original wasn't really that good, and seeing it through fresh eyes makes that abundantly clear.

Which brings us all back to The Sound of Music and why those comments were so infuriating.

The Sound of Music is not just a movie. It never has been. It's a movie adaptation of a stage musical. And, guess what? Since the movie adaptation, the show has been revived on Broadway, revived in London multiple times, and performed in smaller theaters everywhere. It's been reproduced everywhere because it is beloved. Saying Julie Andrews is the only one person who is ever allowed to touch that role not only is rather a nasty thing to say about Mary Martin, who originated the role on Broadway, but it's also negating all the hard work all these other theaters and productions have put into the role. Also, it just doesn't make sense. Julie Andrews is quite wonderful, but she's not perfect, and I guarantee you that someday, someone, somewhere along the way, is going to make a better acting choice as Maria than she did. And I would like to be open enough to recognize it when I see it.

In conclusion, here are a list of movie remakes I like better than the originals:
1. Sabrina (1995)
2. Freaky Friday (2003)
3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
4. Hairspray (2007)
5. Vanilla Sky (2001)

And a list of song covers I like better than the originals:
1. "Mad World" by Gary Jules
2. "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" by Jennifer Hudson
3. "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge!
4. "Dear Prudence" from Across the Universe
5. And, of course, let's not forget "Baby Got Back" by Jonathan Coulton

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