Month: June 2013

‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series (Part Two): War and (Sometimes) Peace

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Another Day, Another Director

Imperial Battle Cruisers
Imperial Battle Cruisers

The Star Wars movies began their slow galactic ascent into our collective subconscious on May 25, 1977, with the initial release of the enticingly titled Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.

I can remember glancing up at that enormous Panavision widescreen and being thoroughly enchanted, as well as confused, by the receding letters on that vast, blue-black star field. I distinctly recall wondering to myself, “Where the hell was I for the first three installments?” I was not alone in that regard.

In fact, the next chapter in Twentieth Century-Fox’s financial juggernaut, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, followed soon thereafter on May 21, 1980, with the last entry taking another three years to complete, before Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was readied for release — again, on a lucrative 1983 Memorial Day weekend and on May 25, just like the first entry.

Each picture featured three different directors: Mr. Lucas for the first; the veteran Irvin Kershner (Return of a Man Called Horse, Never Say Never Again), a former film and photography student, for the second; and Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Eye of the Needle) for the third. Kershner and Lucas were fellow alumni at the University of Southern California (USC) Film School, where he was tapped for this directing assignment. Director Marquand, on the other hand, was a writer and producer previously associated with TV shows, commercials, and mini-series in his native England.

Politically, things were not so far advanced. When the original Star Wars epic premiered in May 1977, Democrat Jimmy Carter had already been sworn in as the 39th President of the United States — the proverbial “New Hope” for North America, politically speaking — just as the public outcry against the abuses of the Watergate scandal had toppled Republican Richard M. Nixon (the Evil Emperor) from power.

After the affairs of Nixon and his equally nefarious cronies were over and done with, democracy was supposedly salvaged by a more benign figure (Yoda in human guise?), one who was not only completely outside the established Washington mainstream but straight out of the jilted backwater of a sleepy little town called Plains, Georgia — the proverbial “mud hole” of the Dagobah system, about as long ago and far, far away from the D.C. limelight as the planet Tatooine was from our home planet Earth.

James Earl Carter was a genteel, born-again Christian — a peanut farmer, if memory serves me, and the former governor of Georgia. In retrospect, he wasn’t quite the sort of leader the country required at the time in order to confront the burgeoning Soviet arms buildup and advancing Red menace. Then again, neither was Obi Wan Kenobi, nor Luke Skywalker for that matter. Appearances can be deceiving.

The Vietnam War had officially come to an end not two years prior. Yet Americans were still unable to come to grips with that disastrous episode in our history and its overpoweringly socio-political aftermath. The veterans of that unpopular exchange were not even granted a victory parade until a full decade or so later.

California Dreamin’

Imperial Walkers (The Empire Strikes Back)
Imperial Walkers (The Empire Strikes Back)

With all that in mind, a young Southern California movie-maker named George Lucas slowly emerged as part of the new “advance guard” of a Vietnam-driven generation of film directors that spawned the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Brian de Palma.

Though likely not the first of the breed, Lucas was perhaps the most adventurous of the bunch to have used the Vietnam War-metaphor (by way of classical mythology) as the principal underlying theme of his films; by showing what a hopelessly outnumbered band of courageous guerrilla fighters and their surprise tactics could do to undermine the efforts of a much larger, more unwieldy, and vastly superior Imperial Force — a reference to the United States of America, I would imagine.

It was supposed to have been a foregone conclusion in the 1960s that the U.S. could defeat any foe at any time or place; we would triumph in any military campaign against allegedly weaker, albeit undersized, enemy opponents such as the runty North Vietnamese, as the generals and military types of the era so pompously pointed out (forgetting the harsh lessons that the Korean campaign taught us).

Little did we know how wrong they truly were. The subsequent films in the Star Wars lineup, then, went on to serve as prescient lessons in hubris, humility, lost causes, and old-time religion.

Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back)
Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back)

Lucas envisioned his fable as a pure morality tale of mythic proportions. It was destined to become a combination New Age Nibelungenlied and coming-of-age story starring a boyishly blond, teenaged Siegfried (our young friend, Luke Skywalker) for the “me” generation. Darth Vader was the Wotanesque father figure, with Jedi masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi playing the all-knowing, all-wise, behind-the-scenes architects of it all (Loge and Erda, respectively).

As Lucas re-imagined it, each character had his or her own mythic archetype attached to his or her actions, brilliantly conceived and commented upon by author Joseph Campbell (The Hero of a Thousand Faces) and subsequently discussed at length in his now-classic television interview series, The Power of Myth (1988), with PBS journalist and former JFK speech writer, Bill Moyers.

By the time of the second feature, The Empire Strikes Back, a change in U.S. administrations had signaled a complete reversal of political fortunes. It was Memorial Day again in May 1980, and, with the presidential election only a few months away, it appeared that Jimmy Carter might be going up against former actor and governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan, a Western-like cowboy figure riding to the rescue, in big white Stetson hat and big white horse.

Getting back to Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was now a full-fledged knight of the Jedi realm, and equipped with a new light saber (including several upgrades) as the symbol of his power over earthy matters. The technologically inferior and seemingly incapable Ewoks, along with metallic androids C-3PO and R2-D2, contribute, fight back, and eventually win the day for the Rebel Alliance. Three cheers for that!!!

Wicket, one of the Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)
Wicket (Warwick Davis), one of the Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)

Soon, young Luke discovers that he has his own personal challenges to face, and against the far greater power of the Emperor himself, that traditional black-hooded bogeyman — a latter-day Grim Reaper, but without the sickle.

Sticking with this main point, the decidedly low-tech Ewoks are there in order to help conquer the high-tech soldiers of the Imperial Forces. After all, the inferior and illiterate Barbarians of Northern Europe ultimately defeated the Roman Republic, so why not the hapless little Ewoks?

The Vietnam analogy wins out in the end, though, with the Ewoks obviously representing the Vietnamese (both the North and the South) fighting for their territory — and on their land.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Meet Ed Motta — the Real “Music Man” of Brazilian Musical Theater

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"Music Man" Ed Motta (multishow.globo.com)
“Music Man” Ed Motta (multishow.globo.com)

What hasn’t musician, composer, singer, jazz-soul aficionado, multi-instrumentalist, and all-around nice guy Ed Motta accomplished in his professional life?

At its beginning – indeed, before there was even a “beginning” to speak of – and long before Dancing with the Stars was born, Motta made his mark on the music scene as a disco-dance contestant. He later dropped out of high school to become a vocalist with a hard-rock band named Kabbalah.

He also worked as a DJ and magazine contributor; was a co-founder of the group Conexão Japeri who eventually went solo; and was a serious (and I do mean, SERIOUS) book and record collector, as well as a prolific recording and performing artist.

He’s even done some animated movie work, the most conspicuous of which was providing the Brazilian-Portuguese translations (along with the singing voice) of British pop star Phil Collins’ songs for the Disney feature Tarzan. He did the same for Sting in The Emperor’s New Groove, also from Disney.

But all these extracurricular activities are well known quantities to his fans. What they might not say about the wildly eclectic 41-year-old, a nephew of the late, great Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia, is his unconventional excursion into the realm of the legitimate theater – specifically, the Broadway musical theater.

Well, not exactly Broadway per se, but the next best thing: the fabulous new world of Rio musicals, courtesy of the successful production team of Möeller-Botelho, the acknowledged “Kings of Brazilian Musicals” (Os Reis dos Musicais).

Ed Motta
Ed Motta

Could The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill have done it any better? No way! For one thing, Ed Motta is no charlatan: he’s the “real deal” when it comes to pure music-making. For another, it’s what he was meant to do all along.

“I love soul, funk and jazz,” Motta told British journalist John L. Waters, of London’s The Guardian, in December 2003. “But I simply adore Broadway musicals, and I love the London cast versions. My ambition,” he went on to elaborate, “is to write a musical so that I can hear the English singers do my music…” Let’s say that he’s halfway home.

On September 1, 2007, at the João Caetano Theater in Rio de Janeiro (Motta’s hometown), Brazilian audiences bore witness to the world premiere of 7 – The Musical, its first completely original, homegrown musical hit in recent memory. Not since the bygone days of Chico Buarque’s Roda viva (“Live Roundtable”) and Calabar, or Gota d’água (“The Last Straw”), his classic collaboration with writer Paulo Pontes, or even the Brecht-Weill inspired Ópera do Malandro (“The Street Hustler’s Opera”), has there been such buzz about a musical play.

As the offspring of proud parents Ed Motta (music), Charles Möeller (book and direction) and Claudio Botelho (lyrics and musical direction), 7 would go on to become a multi-award winner and box-office champion in both Rio and São Paulo. Who would’ve guessed?

So how did this extraordinary project come to pass? In February 2011, I corresponded with the work’s composer, Ed Motta, to discuss the genesis of his groundbreaking musical and how he arrived at this major turning point in his career.

Josmar Lopes Thank you, Ed, for taking time off from your busy schedule to correspond with me.

Ed Motta – Wassup, Joe?

JL – First off, when did you write the music for  7 – The Musical?

EM – I began to write some of these songs almost four, five years before the musical.

JL Did you have any idea of its dark and somber nature?

EM – I think some of the tunes do have this dark atmosphere, but there are happy waltzes and classic Broadway “Can-Can” as well. I have been writing these musicalesque tunes for a long time, usually it was just for my pleasure since my main audience knows me because of my soul-jazz tunes.

JL I’ll say! When did you decide to have Claudio Botelho and Charles Möeller build a musical play around your tunes? Whose idea was it to do this?

Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (vejario.abril.com.br)
Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (vejario.abril.com.br)

EM – I went to see their version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company [in 2000]. I loved not just the perfect Charles timing and direction, but Claudio’s acidic and cynical lyrics that reminds me of Donald Fagen’s words and stories inside the Steely Dan architecture.

JL Is this something you always wanted to do, to write a musical-theater piece?

EM – I like Broadway… I called Claudio and asked him that I really would like to show my Broadway-inspired tunes for them. They liked the atmosphere and they know the language very well, so it makes me more than proud and happy [what they did].

JL Who got the idea of doing a story based on a modern version of Snow White? Did you have any input in the development of the plot or songs?

EM – This idea was Charles and Claudio’s; I just wrote the tunes before and made some suggestions about the music. I remember the day they went to my house with the whole thing: it was God’s gift to me.

 JL Fantastic! There are only six musicians in the orchestra pit, who play piano, violin, cello, drums, alto sax and bass. With the conductor, that’s seven musicians. Was there a reason such a limited number of instruments was chosen for such a big musical?

EM – First of all budget, LOL. But a musical like Marry Me A Little from Sondheim has this [same] kind of minimalism regarding the orchestration. Delia Fischer, who used to be my music teacher in the 1990’s, did a wonderful job [of orchestrating 7]. It’s like some low-budget 40’s and 50’s movie soundtracks, with a little piece of the orchestra. It has a special drama and enhances the composition without the butter, LOL.

JL Describe your collaboration with Charles and Claudio, and what exactly you guys did to shape Seven into a musical.

EM – My thing was strictly musical, Charles [did] the direction and Claudio, like the Renaissance man that he is, did everything else. I wrote some instrumental passages and overture, underture, etc. I worked a little bit with the original cast, singing together and playing piano.

JL – Speaking for myself, I love this music! It’s so instantly recognizable and memorable!

EM – Wow, God bless!

Rogeria as Dona Odette in 7 - The Musical (youtube.com)
Rogeria as Dona Odette in 7 – The Musical (youtube.com)

JL When I first heard the songs, I immediately knew this was Broadway material. What inspired you to write this music, especially the marvelous and catchy numbers?

EM Inspiration? My record collection with more than 30,000 vinyl LPs, and of course loads of Broadway material. And composers Marc Blitzstein, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, Frank Loesser, Vernon Duke, and so on. Of course, Stephen Sondheim is a super influence.

JL I’m glad you mentioned Sondheim. Do you agree with the criticism that 7 sounds more like a Sondheim-type of musical rather than a typically “Brazilian” piece?

EM – Ha ha! We have to remember Bernard Shaw’s words: “Who knows does, who doesn’t know teaches, and who cannot do either works as a critic.”

JL That’s true even today!

EM – Brazilian journalists do not know a dime about Broadway, and then people come up with these crazy statements. But commercial and cheesy things have bigger audiences all over the planet, right?

JL You’re right about that as well. You have a rather eclectic taste in music, with many styles and genres associated with your name, yet you’re a relatively young man. What is it that drove you to become such a versatile artist in such a short period of time?

EM – One more time I must give the credit to my record collection, to be an eBay freak buying records EVERY DAY and in many styles. Many soundtracks, musicals, rare soul, rare rock, rare reggae, but the most important thing in my collection is Jazz. My dream is to record an album with a Broadway influence [but] with a jazz viewpoint like Escalator Over The Hill from that musical genius Carla Bley.

JL – Your voice reminds people of the young Stevie Wonder. Are you flattered or embarrassed by the comparison?

EM – It’s a big honor for me, I love Stevie! But my main influence is Donny Hathaway, for me the best singer ever.

JL Donny is a smooth-jazz legend! You’re also a huge record collector and, as you say, you have over 30,000 records. That’s really quite extraordinary! Of all the albums that you own, what is your favorite type of listening music? Do you have a favorite artist or band?

EM – Ennio Morricone is the artist that I have the most records, almost 300 LPs by him. And many, many interests, i.e. free jazz, 60’s and 70’s rock. Donald Fagen and Steely Dan are a high-water mark in my life from 25 years ago. In fact, I’m going to be 40 this year.

JL – Congrats! The music for 7 is so different from your pop-influenced or funk-based work. There’s only one song, “Leva essa mulher” (“Take This Woman Now”), that I would classify as bluesy or jazzy. The rest are highly theatrical, especially “Canção em torno do defunto” (“Dance Around the Dead Man”), “Esfregando o chão” (“Scrub That Dirty Floor”), and my favorite, “O coração no bosque” (“A Heart in the Forest”). That last number was cut from the São Paulo production. I personally feel that song was a superb piece and should not have been dropped. What were your thoughts on that decision?

Zeze Motta & Alessandra Maestrini: 7 - The Musical
Zeze Motta & Alessandra Maestrini: 7 – The Musical

EM – Charles and Claudio know more about what to put into a musical than I do. I have experience, but my experience is regarding music and that’s it. But I do hope the English version [of 7] will have this Morricone-influenced tune back on stage.

JL Along those same lines, it’s my understanding an entire scene was deleted from Act II: the scene of the baby. However, this is a really crucial scene. Without it, the story has a great big “gap” in the middle. There is a good deal of psychological insight in this play (thanks to Charles’ book), and this scene helps to explain much of the plot. Was there a particular reason the scene was cut?

EM – I think it was because Brazilian audiences sometimes could not like something more artistic, in other words, less Ingmar Bergman and more Francis Ford Coppola, LOL.

JL Do you have any new music that you would like Charles and Claudio to adapt into a musical? Do you have any thoughts or ideas for a story? For example, would you be interested in a story based on Brazilian folklore or literature, such as Monteiro Lobato’s classic O Sitio do Picapau Amarelo (“The Ranch of the Yellow Woodpecker”)?

EM – No, this is not my cup of tea. I really would like to write something noir inspired, like a Jules Dassin movie [The Naked City, Rififi, Topkapi]. Something about detectives, femme fatales, etc.

JL Since it’s obvious you enjoyed the experience, would you consider becoming a producer or director of stage musicals?

EM – Wow, a producer? Too much work… My “Jefferson Airplane” lifestyle will not work with it, LOL. But I really would like to work with [musicals] again.

JL – We hope you do. Once again, I want to thank you for your help in answering my questions.

EM – Cheers mate.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ (Part Nine): The Once & Future Song King

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The Hits Keep on Coming

Tom Jobim (veradasdopensamento)
Tom Jobim (veradasdopensamento)

There are no existing records (at least, none that we are aware of) of Carnival taking over the lives of two of the most naturally gifted songwriting talents Brazil has ever had the good fortune to produce: composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Both hit the ground running with their very first collaboration, and hardly paused to draw breath thereafter.

With the conclusion in November 1956 of their Orfeu da Conceição, both took on further challenges by throwing themselves into new work, the result of which led to an enviable (and nearly unbroken) string of song hits. “Between the years 1958 and 1965,” by writer Ruy Castro’s reckoning, “Vinicius produced close to 50 titles with Tom [alone], 40 with Baden Powell, and 30 with Ary Barroso, Moacyr Santos and others,” to include such promising newcomers as Carlos Lyra, Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, and Toquinho.

Researcher Sérgio Ximenes put the total for Tom at “over 250 works, with 29 albums recorded under his own name,” and as a guest artist or participant in approximately 37 more.

Even more impressive, musicologist Jairo Severiano, in his Uma História da Música Popular Brasileira, records that, “In the period 1963-1994, Jobim composed a hundred some-odd pieces of music that, taking into account those he had completed earlier, reached 230 recorded compositions. Besides sambas, sambas-canções, and other characteristic constructions…there were songs dedicated to ecological themes, expressed in his usual good-natured style and tinged with a degree of romanticism.”

Severiano cites such supreme examples of his art as “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), “Matita perê” (“Song of the Thrush”), “Passarim,” Borzeguim,” “Chansong” — a play on chanson, the French word for “song” — “Anos dourados” (“Looks Like December”), “Sabià,” “Retrato em branco e preto” (“Portrait in Black and White”), and those pretty little ditties with ladies in their titles (“Ana Luiza,” “Bebel,” “Lígia,” and “Luiza”).

The more songs the tunesmith turned out, it would seem, the more accomplished he became at it. The only thing that Jobim had failed at evolving was an appropriately thick skin to go with his compositional flair, something not even his most frequent working partner Vinicius had bothered to grow over a lifetime of living large in the public eye.

According to the composer’s self-analysis, timidity is the word that best described his reticent comportment around others. But be not deceived: Tom was no pushover when it came to defending his artistic turf; neither did he find it necessary to berate the opposition in the same demonstrative mien The Little Poet loved to exhibit. Audacity, intuition, curiosity, duality, obstinacy, unconventionality, and universality were the other key attributes of Jobim’s personal makeup, and they undoubtedly showed.

Still lionized as “the most beautiful man in Brazil” (which he was), he had grown increasingly discomfited over reports in the national press of his becoming too Americanized — journalistic shorthand for “going native” — for his introduction of jazz and bebop elements into the corpus of his work. (Actually, jazz owed more to bossa nova than bossa nova owed to jazz, but that made little difference to the naysayers of his day.)

These were the same baseless accusations that had dogged the footsteps of the late Carmen Miranda in her prime, the kind that forced the popular entertainer to pull up stakes in her home country and go seek her fortune elsewhere (in the United States, to be exact). Now they were winding their insidious way into Jobim’s world as well. He was even accused at one point of adopting the American form of “Tom,” a nickname younger sister Helena had tagged him with as a boy, as proof of his outside aspirations.

Vinicius making a point to Jobim
Vinicius trying to make a point to Jobim

For a man whose middle name also happened to be Brasileiro (Portuguese for “Brazilian”), this was a savage blow indeed to his integrity and self-worth. Overcoming his own well-documented reserve, Jobim seriously contemplated putting out some sort of riposte while maintaining his vaunted coolness under fire, even in the face of mounting critical concerns.

His much-publicized 1970 interview with left-wing journalist and ex-politician Carlos Lacerda, for the Brazilian magazine Manchete (“the only serious piece that explains who I am,” Jobim announced to all), is a fair indication of how he conducted himself in hand-to-hand combat with the press. In it, Tom simply took on the same E daí? (“What of it?”) attitude the equally good natured Heitor Villa-Lobos once opted for when confronted with a similar situation in his past:

“I am Brazilian, and I write Brazilian music not because of nationalism, but because I don’t know how to do any other kind. If I were to do jazz, I’d be an idiot, since any black musician from their Lapa [the poor bohemian district of Rio] could play better than I.”

That’s telling them, Tom! Lacerda gave the composer free rein to air his pent-up feelings and frustrations to a nationwide audience. Before the dust had time to settle, though, the wily reporter and would-be shrink made the following annotations about them:

“It seems to me that [Jobim’s] worries were not about criticism of his music. His songs get better over time. His critics only get worse. He’s accused of being Americanized? Nonsense! The Americans speak of French influences. The French know, after Black Orpheus, that he’s very much Brazilian. The most Brazilian there is, since Heitor Vila-Lôbos [sic]. What he’s incapable of hiding is his musical education.”

In the decades that passed since this piece first saw the light, many a “black musician from their Lapa” would unhesitatingly step up to the stage and pay tribute to Tom’s “musical education.” In Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Illuminado (“An Enlightened Man”), an unusually intimate portrait of her dearly departed older sibling, novelist and poet Helena Jobim remembers what one of them, the reclusive pianist Thelonius Monk, had to say about Brazil’s lasting contribution to his particular style of music making: “Bossa nova gave to New York’s intellectual jazz community what it lacked, that is, rhythm, balance, and a Latin heat.”

Tom was quite beside himself to hear how Americans had taken to the harmonically advanced chord progressions he and Vinicius hammered out for their chart-busting single, “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1963,* thanks ever so much to saxophone great Stan Getz and the sensuous come-hither sounds (speaking of Latin heat) of Astrud Gilberto. Their recording came in at Number Five on the Billboard Top Pop of 1964, while reaching Number One on the Adult Contemporary scene. It was kept under wraps for a solid year before being released into a market dominated by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and other formidable folk.

And the World Goes ‘Round

For now, there was no jumping off the bossa-nova bandwagon. On the contrary, Jobim was more anxious than ever to hold on for dear life and keep the mutual admiration society going. “More and more,” his little sister acknowledged, “Tom respected the U.S. as a country that received, with open arms and without prejudices, artists from all over. He felt himself a citizen of the world there,” and with good reason.

From 1963 until his death, in December 1994, of heart failure following surgery for bladder cancer — another uncanny reference to his hero, Villa-Lobos — Jobim divided his time between the American East and West Coasts, and the southeastern tip of Brazil. While in the States, he recorded many of his most fondly remembered works (including two classic sessions with Sinatra) for Warner-Reprise, as well as for the strictly jazz label Verve and the R & B-based A&M Records. His two pet projects, the albums Matita perê (1973) and Urubu (“Vulture,” 1976), were roundly rejected in Rio but eventually picked up here by MCA and Warner, in that order.

Toquinho, Miucha, Vinicius & Jobim
Toquinho, Miucha, Vinicius & Jobim

Having gone their own way since the middle of the 1960s onward — the motive behind the amicable split being Moraes’ need to share his poetic insights with other, lesser-known adherents — the once inseparable duo reunited as a quartet in September 1977 for a now-historic series of concerts. Backed by Toquinho, Vinicius’ then-current touring partner, and Chico Buarque’s sister, Miúcha (recently wed to the equally hermetic João Gilberto), the group played Rio’s Canecão nightclub for seven straight months, then took their show on the road to such places as São Paulo, London, and Paris.

Ruy Castro recounts, in his fact-filled tome Ela é Carioca: Uma Enciclopédia de Ipanema (“She’s a Carioca: An Encyclopedia of Ipanema”), one of the high points of their encounter: the nostalgic “Carta ao Tom,” followed immediately by its parody, “Carta do Tom” (“Letter from Tom”), in which the composer and his lyricist Chico bemoaned the loss of innocence once associated with Ipanema’s tranquil, middle-class neighborhood.

“Their music,” Castro informs us, “woke audiences up” to the shocking realization that “a marvelous world was about to pass on,” to be replaced by “another, more somber and alarming one.” He concluded his musings with a painful reminder of what was to come: “At the end of 1978, when the show finally closed due to the members’ complete exhaustion, no one could imagine that Vinicius had less than two years to live.”

(End of Part Nine)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


* From F-sharp major at the words “Oh, but I watch her so sadly” and on “How can I tell her I love her?” to G minor at “Yes, I would give my heart gladly,” back down to A major with “But each day when she walks to the sea,” ending on D major, then G major for “She looks straight ahead,” and finally returning to F-sharp major on “not at me,” in Norman Gimbel’s sultry English-language verses.

‘Ópera do Malandro’ (‘The Street Hustler’s Opera’): What’s It All About, Max Overseas?

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Cast of Opera do Malandro - Soraya Ravenle, Claudio Lins, Alessandra Maestrini (teatromicaelense.com.br)
Cast of Opera do Malandro – Soraya Ravenle, Claudio Lins, Alessandra Maestrini (teatromicaelense.com.br)

Words & Music: Chico Buarque de Hollanda

English Plot Summary: Josmar Lopes

(From the revival by Charles Möeller & Claudio Botelho)

The most well-known of singer/songwriter Francisco (“Chico”) Buarque de Hollanda’s musical plays for the Brazilian stage, Ópera do Malandro (or “The Street Hustler’s Opera”) is based in large part on The Beggar’s Opera (1728), an English ballad opera attributed to poet and dramatist John Gay; and The Threepenny Opera (1928), conceived by playwright Bertolt Brecht with composer Kurt Weill. The original show premiered in Rio de Janeiro in July 1978, and was subsequently introduced to São Paulo, in October 1979, under the direction of Luiz Antonio Martinez Correa. It has since been revived a number of times throughout Brazil and Portugal, particularly during 2003-2004 by the award-winning production team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.

Dramatis Personae (in order of appearance):

Fernandes de Duran – an enterprising merchant, moneylender and bordello owner.

Fichinha (“Easy as Pie”) – a recent “recruit” from the North of Brazil.

Vitoria Regia – Duran’s wife, a fanatical social climber and former madam.

Geni (a.k.a. Genival) – Max’s go-between, a transvestite panderer and lazy good-for-nothing,

who plays both sides of the fence, as befits his dual nature.

Teresinha (“Little Teresa”) – the Durans’ spoiled-rotten daughter, in love with  Max.

Max Overseas – the malandro of the title, a smuggler, thief and master  con man, in addition to being Public Enemy Number One.

Inspector Chaves – called “Big Tiger,” the chief of police and friend to Max; he happens to be on the con man’s payroll, but who also works for Duran on the side.

Max’s gang of malandros: Johnny Walker, Barrabas, General Electric, Phillip Morris, Big Ben, Kid

Duran’s team of hookers: Shirley Packet, Mimi Trinkets, Baby Doll Dora, Doris Floppy Breasts, Jussara Angel’s Feet, Catarina Blue

Lucia – Inspector Chaves’ daughter, in love with (and made pregnant by) Max.

The setting is the old bohemian district of Lapa, in Rio de Janeiro. The time is the early 1940s, during the dictatorship of Brazilian strongman Getúlio Vargas. Although the story takes place during this period, the setting and action are, in reality, sharp-eyed reflections on Brazil’s military government years of the late 1970s and the growing dependency on foreign (read: American) corporate interests and influence.

Merchant and moneylender Fernandes de Duran and his social-climbing wife, Vitoria Regia, run a successful operation of houses of ill repute, among other questionable activities, employing hundreds of fallen women as workers in their “boutique,” thus keeping them out of “trouble.” The couple has a daughter, Teresinha (“Little Teresa”), who has been brought up to lead a rather sheltered life – or so they believe – away from the cruelty and want of this world. Duran and Vitoria have done their best to seek an advantageous match for their only child.

The couple’s silent partner, Inspector Chaves, the dreaded chief of police, is in charge of the so-called morals of the city. By sheer coincidence (or perhaps not so coincidentally), Chaves supplements his measly police earnings by accepting gifts, grafts and gratuities not only from Duran but also from his friend and ally in crime, the notorious smuggler Max Overseas.

At the same time, Max lords it over his enterprising band of hoods, known collectively as malandros (“street hustlers”), that operates in the vicinity – and without too much interference from the law, thanks to his pal Chaves. Business is thriving, until the day all three of these men cross paths with each other. That’s when the real fun begins!

PROLOGUE

Before the curtain rises, two malandros appear in front of the stage to introduce the program by singing the praises of malandragem, or the street-hustler life, in their wide-brimmed hats, white-tailored suits, dark shirts, white shoes and spats. They break into a little song and dance routine, which is enlarged to encompass the entire cast in an elaborate opening production number:

1) A VOLTA DO MALANDRO (“The Return of the Street Hustler”)

ACT ONE

Scene One: Duran’s office home. Fernandes de Duran, zealous guardian of “law and order” (as he sees it), is talking to Inspector Chaves on the telephone. Duran is calling in his debt: he informs Chaves that the end of the month is at hand, but the police chief’s monthly payment is long overdue. After interrupting the phone conversation with repeated knocks on the door, Fichinha sashays into the room. A young girl from the impoverished North, she has been sent to him from a nearby jail, allegedly for loitering and soliciting. After getting the impression she is probably the most clueless individual he has ever met, Duran offers her a job in his boutique. He thinks she has definite “possibilities” in the call-girl profession.

His social-climbing-minded wife, Vitoria Regia (a former call girl and bordello madam herself), thinks otherwise. Among her duties, Vitoria is responsible for the employees’ moral and physical welfare (such as they are), in accordance with her husband’s instructions. Vitoria examines the obviously unqualified candidate, calling her names and cursing her misshapen body repeatedly. In the next number, Vitoria explains to Fichinha the basics of her profession. Forget about love, she admonishes, this is strictly a business affair. Concentrate instead on doing the best job you can for one’s clients, just as any self-respecting working stiff would do:

2) VIVER DO AMOR (“Living by Loving”)

Unfortunately, her advice is cut short by the arrival of Geni, or (when it moves him), Genival, a transgender-like lost soul who is Max’s go-between. Through hints and sarcastic asides, Geni makes Duran and Vitoria aware of the impending marriage of their only child, their precious little Teresinha. Their daughter has lately flown the coop and, as the bewildered couple belatedly learns, is preparing to wed Public Enemy Number One, the infamous Max Overseas. Vitoria is aghast at the thought. Duran now resolves to have a little chat with Inspector Chaves, who owes him big time, to convince the police chief that he must disrupt his daughter’s wedding at any cost. What is needed is a little persuasion. He launches into a number whereby he claims to talk tough to miscreants, takes a hard-line with criminals. In short, that’s his philosophy of life, which he shares with the audience:

3) HINO DE DURAN (“Duran’s Code of Ethics”)

"The Hovel Tango" (revistaglobo.com.br)
“The Hovel Tango” (revistaglobo.com.br)

Scene Two: Max’s hideaway. The wedding of Teresinha and Max is about to take place at the bandit’s dingy hideout on the outskirts of town. While they await the arrival of the best man, Max presents his bride-to-be to his motley crew of subordinates, who dedicate an original ode to the little woman. They introduce themselves to her one by one, enumerating their various specialties (and virtues) in crime, by engaging her in a tango:

4) TANGO DO COVIL (“The Hovel Tango”)

When the “office boy” Kid blurts out that the best man is here, Max’s gang makes a mad dash for the exit. The best man turns out to be none other than Inspector Chaves, Lapa’s chief of police – the gruff individual known as “Big Tiger” – and a close pal of Max. The two trade friendly insults with each other, testing one another’s nerves almost to the breaking point, in the serio-comic duet that follows:

5) DESAFIO DO MALANDRO (“The Hustler’s Challenge”)

Chaves complains to Max that his “boss” is calling in his debts, so he has to press Max for payback as well. Max assures him that he can wrangle the money from his future father-in-law. When Max hears that Chaves’ boss and his father-in-law-to-be are one and the same person, i.e. Fernandes de Duran, he is absolutely delighted at the news and assures his old partner that all debts will be forgiven, no questions asked. With that, Chaves begins to perform his “official duty” as justice of the peace, in order to get the wedding ceremony rolling. Just then, Geni enters in an attempt to crash the party. Too late, as the gang members devour all the food and drink in sight. The participants launch into a rousing musical number wherein Max and Teresinha sing of their separate interests, and dream of a “happy” married life together, till death do they part:

6) O CASAMENTO DOS PEQUENOS BURGUESES (“Wedding of the Petits Bourgeoisies”)

Scene Three: Back at Duran’s office. Duran and Vitoria confront their daughter Teresinha about the supposed rumor of her wedding. Since father and daughter are not on speaking terms, they transmit each other’s words through mother Vitoria. Yes, it’s true, Teresinha admits, she is now married to Max. This revelation sends Vitoria into exaggerated paroxysms of remorse. After her mother apostrophizes over her motives for marrying such a man as this bandit and thief, Teresinha makes a simple declaration: she did not marry Max for his money, oh no, but (gasp) for real love. She breaks into a song wherein she describes how this phenomenon came about:

7) TERESINHA (“Little Teresa”)

When Duran discovers that Inspector Chaves has served as the best man for Public Enemy Number One, the merchant threatens to blackmail him in a major scandal that will bring the police chief down. Knowing Chaves the way he does, Duran has no doubt he would rather choose to betray his buddy Max Overseas than to see his lucrative sideline collapse. The plan is to eliminate Max, once and for all. Teresinha overhears their conversation just as she is about to say farewell to her mother – and prior to her packing up and moving out of the house. Teresinha bids her parents adieu, during which Duran and Vitoria reminisce about how they nurtured and cared for “Little Teresa,” only to be treated to this unappetizing spectacle of her marriage to a hood. It would be better if Teresinha had never been born, they moan:

8) UMA CANÇÃO DESNATURADA (“An Unnatural Song”)

Duran’s girls come out, led by the Argentine firecracker Baby Doll Dora. Every one of the hookers is whining and complaining about a whole laundry list of problems and concerns, many of a debauched nature, i.e. how best to perform their call girl “duties” using such terrible and out-of-date accessories as Duran has supplied them with. They band together as a team to show off their individual “wares” in a slam-bang closing number, written especially for the 1986 movie version:

9) LAS  MUCHACHAS DE  COPACABANA (“The Girls from Copacabana”)

CURTAIN

 

ACT TWO

A young malandro named Kid comes out to the front of the stage to sing a samba-tinged homage to the street hustler. The malandro has become a respectable part of society, he intones, with a wife and a child – and a full-time day job, to boot. Kid is joined by the other malandros who participate in tandem:

10) HOMENAGEM AO MALANDRO (“Homage to the Street Hustler”)

Scene One: Back at Max’s hideout. Teresinha enters to tell Max that his “old buddy,” Big Tiger Chaves, is coming by to arrest him, under pressure from her dad, the now furious Duran. At first Max laughs off her entreaties, but soon realizes that she is deadly serious. Teresinha promises to take care of Max’s “business interests” in his absence, while Max decides to lay low for a spell. He summons the malandros to announce that he is taking a vacation from his chores and promptly runs off, leaving Teresinha in charge of his henchmen. No sooner has she taken over, when she gets immediate resistance from Max’s boys – one of whom, Barrabas, is “fired” for insubordination.  He is promptly shown the door, but on his way out Barrabas vows that he will be reinstated in the end. Teresinha’s retort is that, given a choice between Barrabas and herself, Max will choose her every time. “Are there any other complaints?” she asks.

Scene Two: Duran’s brothel. Fichinha, a full-fledged member of the troupe, sings a brief ditty about her new “legitimate” hooker profession. If you want an amorous encounter, she boasts, she’ll be more than happy to oblige. But sooner or later, a client will just be another name among many in her little black book of contacts:

11) FOLHETIM (“Little Black Book”)

Max enters, seeking comfort among the ladies. Although he is supposed to be fleeing for his life, Max is a creature of habit – a very bad habit, at that: like clockwork, he stops by for his regular “visit” with one of Duran’s girls, just so he can “catch up” on the latest happenings. Geni steals in behind him, as the girls hide their signs and placards from them. The prestige that Max is held in by the girls cannot prevent them from following Duran’s orders: their boss has induced them to join a noisy street protest against him. Already the girls are in the process of making things difficult for Max. Some of their signs read: “Down with Corruption! To Jail with Max and Chaves!”

In the midst of all this, Geni warns Max of a coming betrayal. The betrayer’s name begins with the letter “G.” Max tries to bribe the girls with promises of expensive gifts. As an added incentive, he showers them with nylon stockings, the latest modern fashion statement. They’re having a grand old-time of it, leading to the next rollicking number:

12) AI, SE ELES ME PEGAM AGORA (“What Would Our Parents Say If They Caught Us Now?”)

Tipped off by a possible stool pigeon (most logically, Geni), Inspector Chaves now enters, followed by Vitoria, who tries her best to apprehend Max. Vitoria makes a big deal out of the protest signs, so that Chaves gets the blunt idea he is to carry out her husband’s orders to the letter and eliminate Max, or else. Max stands alone against his pursuers. Even his own former gang members, all of them “fired” by the lordly Mrs. Teresinha Overseas, have joined the protest against him. As Max is left to his fate, the malandros and hookers repeat Duran’s “Code of Ethics,” but this time it is under another name: it’s now called the “Song of Repression”:

13) HINO DA REPRESSÃO (“Song of Repression”)

Scene Three: The jail where Max is being kept. With Max safely behind bars, Chaves goes off to ask Duran to suspend the protest march. Duran, for his part, is still not convinced that all is well. He wants to see his daughter, Teresinha, a widow – the sooner, the better. While this is going on, Chaves’ daughter, Lucia, comes to pay a visit to her “beloved” Max. To him, Lucia is like a little niece. To her, Max is an old flame, his intimate – so much so that she now carries Max’s child. Max promises to register their marriage, either officially or at the altar – and intends to spend their honeymoon in Hollywood – just as soon as he can get out of jail. Lucia is about to give in to his pleas, when all of a sudden, who should appear but Teresinha Overseas. It’s obvious that Lucia and Teresinha do not get along, as each tries to outdo the other in demonstrating their affection for Max, in an emotionally charged duet:

Advertisement for Opera do Malandro (flickr.com)
Advertisement for Opera do Malandro (flickr.com)

14) O MEU AMOR (“My True Love”)

Max rejects Teresinha’s advances. Why, he was only joking, he claims. How could she possibly think for one moment that he would consent to marry her? It was all a joke, a put-on, just to “humor” the poor, misguided girl. Lucia, however, is in seventh heaven and allows Max to escape. Now a free man, Max throws her a kiss and disappears into the shadows. Lucia is left to reflect that she will come back to him one day. No matter what happens. She swears it, on her word as a woman:

15) PALAVRA DE MULHER (“The Word of a Woman”)

Scene Four: Back at Duran’s office. The protest is about to begin in earnest. Chaves, who is having an attack of the nerves, has his men turn the city upside down to find Max. He goes to see Duran, who is equally upset at Max’s disappearance. The police chief starts to despair of his lot… unless, by some miracle, Max can be found. No sooner said than done as Geni now waltzes in. He flaunts his perfumes, jewels, silks and crystals. Geni is in a gracious mood. Vitoria plies him with cognac in a vain attempt to loosen his tongue as to Max’s whereabouts. While Duran insists, the police chief implores Geni to divulge his information, or face his wrath. There’s still an hour left before the protest is to commence, but Geni is in no hurry. He wants some form of compensation – with interest – for divulging what he knows about Max. He asks Vitoria for more cognac, all the while extorting money and favors from the hapless Chaves and Duran. Finally, before he gives up the locale, Geni decides the time is right to put on a little show of his own. To the horror of his captive audience, Geni breaks out in a spirited number dedicated to himself as he relates his sad, sordid plight: Geni wins, Geni loses, Geni loves, Geni gets tossed aside. Throw your stones at Geni, spit on poor Geni, worthless good-for-nothing Geni:

16) GENI E O ZEPELIM (“Geni and the Zeppelin”)

At the end of his song, he tells Duran, Chaves and Vitoria where they can find Max. They beat a hasty retreat, as Geni, exhausted, is left fanning himself on the couch.

Scene Five: Back at the jail. Recaptured, Max knows it’s the end for him. He runs into his old gang member, Barrabas, who is now on the side of the law – no thanks to Teresinha. Not even a visit from Teresinha can snap Max out of his dark mood. What Teresinha tells him, though, is that she’s been able to clear all his debts with loans obtained from legitimate sources. In fact, Max’s entire “fortune” which he had earlier placed in her loving hands (along with the combination to his safe) is gone. The money has now been invested in American multinational firms. Max also learns that he is the sole proprietor of an officially registered corporation called MAX-TERTEX. Max does not feel well at all. For the first time in his life, he is feeling fear.

Meanwhile, above the parapet, Duran goads Chaves into firing his pistol at Max. “Now is your chance, do it!” he cries. But Chaves hesitates as long as the protest is at full tilt. He decides to wait until the opportune time. Max and Teresinha say goodbye to each other in a moving duet. Take a little piece of me, they sing, take a small slice of me with you, wherever you go:

17) PEDAÇO DE MIM (“A Little Piece of Me”)

Scene Six: Vitoria and Duran urge the police chief to blast away. While Vitoria tries to shout down the street protesters, Chaves takes aim and shoots a volley at Max. The con man grabs at his chest, but miraculously he is unharmed. At that instant, Barrabas reappears to announce that he switched weapons on Chaves. What he fired were blanks! Besides, this is a musical, and you can’t have a musical without a “happy ending,” can you? All the cast members return in a glorious salute to Brazil’s growing consumerism, to the strains of composers Verdi, Wagner and Bizet. Duran embraces Max as his new son-in-law, as the curtain comes down on a seemingly happy ending:

18) ÓPERA (FINALE)

Max Overseas & Teresinha (mandrake.pt)
Max Overseas & Teresinha (mandrake.pt)

Max has the last word. Unfortunately, the word isn’t very nice: a rather graphic description of the dead malandro and his decaying corpse. But what is he really describing? Is it a future vision of the country of Brazil? Is it the end of sin city Rio de Janeiro, the death throes of capitalism, or the dangling body of a victim of the military regime? We are left to wonder for ourselves:

19) O MALANDRO Nº 2

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes