‘7’ the Winner! The Brazilian Musical Comes of Age — Part Two: ‘Ele Vai Voltar’ (‘He’ll Come Back, I Vow’)
AN ANALYSIS OF MÖELLER & BOTELHO’S 7 – THE MUSICAL, ONE OF THE FINEST MUSICAL-THEATER PIECES EVER TO HIT THE BRAZILIAN STAGE
At first glance, I was heedless of 7 – The Musical’s innate Brazilianness, nor was I prepared for the show’s startling revelations when they eventually came. Accordingly, I am indebted to Claudio Botelho, Charles Möeller, and Ed Motta for having stressed this singular aspect of their work and the different shades of meaning to be mined from it.
However, as I delved more deeply into the plot and characters associated with their opus magnum — and, above all, the musical’s score and its ingenious placement within the context of the drama — it all started to come together for me.
As in all great works, “7” has a good deal of psychological acuity associated with it, which the show’s music convincingly conveys. The story unfolds, starkly and resolutely, in seamless fashion, with each new disclosure set atop the previous one, until, in the end, the inexorability of the characters’ plight is unveiled and the cycle begins anew.
The show’s dramatis personae are treated with a degree of compassion, if not the cold, calculating hand of a trial lawyer. In this analysis, the audience participates as both judge and jury: “witnesses” are called on to present their “case,” as the “evidence” begins to mount either for or against the protagonists. Theatergoers are then left to their own devices in rendering a “verdict” on the characters’ individual motives.
This marks 7 – The Musical out to be a psychodrama, albeit one that boasts some terrifically lyrical moments. Ample in scope, unsparing in its criticism of Brazilian society’s moral failings and full of emotional density, Möeller & Botelho’s show is redolent of a brutally pessimistic view of human nature at its most repellent (a trait shared with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd). Yet, it’s blessed with a clear-eyed perspective that allows for sufficient appreciation of what these characters have gone through — characters who desperately need to be understood, to say nothing of being loved.
In this climate, even the troubled personality of Amelia, while engaging the audience’s sympathy from the start, would fill whole volumes of case histories in modern psychosis. Furthermore, the entire play is a study in obsessive-compulsive behavior, a doctoral thesis on how far individuals will go to obtain the object of their desire.
The Past is Prologue
The play begins at a railroad station in Rio de Janeiro. It’s not a “real” railroad station, of course, but more of a mental waiting room — a close cousin to Sartre’s No Exit, where people are trapped by past events beyond their control. It’s a symbol, much like that of a wedding ring (the image of family unity) or other key objects: the train, leaving the station, takes its passengers to another realm. This “Rio of the mind,” then, is a drab, uninviting place in a non-existent, not-so-Marvelous City, a bleak and dismal stopover point only a writer of, say, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic sensibilities could dream up.
The first notes to be sounded from the seven-man orchestra are from Amelia’s solo, “Ele vai voltar” (“He’ll Come Back, I Vow”), which she sings a bit later in the act with respect to her philandering husband, the handsome Herculano. His absence at the beginning of the drama, made constant by this recurrent theme, is the spark that sets the plot in motion. In sum, this musical reference all-but guides and drives the story forward.
A huge clock is lowered onto center stage, a clock with no hands on its face — a clue we are dealing with the literal suspension of time and space. To illustrate this point, the clock glows brightly in the manner of a full moon in autumn.
Beneath the clock is the silhouette of a young girl lying on a bench. This is Clara, the ward of Old Stepmother. As the music dies down, Old Stepmother enters and begins to count off the numbers from one to seven, to the tune of “He’ll Come Back.” She then relates the story of Snow White — probably for the thousandth time — to a thoroughly disinterested Clara, who storms off in protest, followed by the stepmother.
“Song of the Wishes”
The scene dissolves to find Amelia, an excitable young woman in her 20′s, in a heated exchange with the clairvoyant, Dona Carmen. Passions boil over as the women argue back-and-forth about their differing points of view concerning Amelia’s tasks, in particular the unnamed seventh task:
Um rato branco
Sementes de romã
Um dente siso
Sapato de mulher
Um livro bento
E uma aliança…
A pale white rodent
Some pomegranate seeds
A tooth that’s rotted
A lady’s high-heeled shoe
A Holy Bible
A wedding band…
Amelia insists it can’t be done, but Carmen counters that it’s the most important task of all. We get bits and pieces of information as to why Amelia is there in the first place: to get her man back. But in order to get her man back she must perform this task within a specified time frame. Desperation sets in on Amelia’s face, while Carmen attempts to soothe her with a cup of red tea — a very potent tea, it would seem.
“He’ll Come Back, I Vow”
The scene changes to a deserted street along the Lapa Arches, where Amelia, disguised as a hooker, lures an unsuspecting gentleman to a bench. Her ensuing actions, we soon learn, become part of the seventh task. There’s a clever riff on the theme of Jack the Ripper with an ironic twist, in that Amelia is transformed into a knife-wielding assassin who tears out her victim’s heart. Not out of lust or hate, but simply out of necessity, a clever joke pulled off by Charles and Claudio.
You see, unbeknown to Amelia, who takes a wedding ring from the gentleman’s finger, she has just killed the notorious Belt Strangler, a vicious fiend and murderer who’s been prowling the streets of Rio dismembering the bodies of other ladies of the evening — seven of them, to be precise. By eliminating this cold-blooded killer, Amelia now becomes the very thing she has dispatched.
Concurrent with the above, Old Stepmother resumes her recitation of the fairy tale of Snow White to Clara. On top of Amelia’s savage act, a one-note theme is repeated over and over again, with Old Stepmother recounting the point in her story where the Evil Queen orders the Huntsman to kill the innocent Snow White. This is juxtaposed with Amelia’s raising of her knife high above the Dead Man’s corpse and bringing it crashing down onto his chest. The blows are punctuated by her cries of despair and eerie notes high up in the strings, reminiscent to discerning ears of Bernard Herrmann’s score from the movie Psycho.
Myths, legends, and fairy tales all have their basis in fact. But here, the lines of each are blurred as to what is real and what is fantasy. Boundaries have been crossed; the so-called lines of demarcation are breached, until we finally lose count of the number of times the realm of fantasy takes over the reality portion of the characters’ minds.
After the heinous deed is done, Amelia washes her hands clean of the crime. With that, the “Ele vai voltar” melody returns, the pacing slow and deliberate, like that of a funeral dirge — portentous, foreboding, full of ominous dread and, most tellingly of all, of pain. Short phrases are interspersed with extended vowel sounds that predominate in the original Portuguese (given below). They reinforce the sense of longing and inevitability, along with a certain satisfaction, on Amelia’s part, for what she has done in the name of love:
Ele vai voltar
Vai voltar, vai
Certo como o sol
E a lua vão voltar no céu
Sem nenhum senão
Sem pensar, sem
Ele vai ser meu
Meu dono, como eu sempre quis
Sempre, meu bem
He’ll come back, I vow
He’ll come running back
As the sun and stars
The moonlight will come out as well
No exceptions, none
No thoughts or words, none
He’ll be mine I swear
My lover, as I’ve always dreamed
Always, I swear
The tune is stretched almost to the breaking point, the notes of the opening lines (“Como um cão que fugira / Como um filho que torna / Como velhos amigos / Como a água no rio / Como tudo na vida” – “Like a runaway servant / Who returns to his master / Like a dear old companion / Like a wave on the water / Flowing one after another”) search in vain for the main melody, as well as reflect Amelia’s agitated state of mind. It’s a powerful yet subtle example of the psycho-acoustic properties of music.
The closing portion of her song, “As portas que vão fechar / Atrás de nós, meu bem / Meu cálido amor” – “The doors are now closing / Closing fast, my love, my heart / The one I adore” — especially the oft-repeated line, “the doors are now closing” (a recurring theme throughout the drama) — represent a combination portal to the past and doorway to the future, an indication of the shifting time-frames the characters must go through as their stories are told. The melody will be repeated once more, near the end of the show.
In this instance, the window of opportunity is left open for Amelia to achieve her goal of getting Herculano to come back to her side, along with fulfilling the seventh task (and her tragic destiny), which is to bring Dona Carmen “A heart that’s strong, still young and vibrant, happy and free” (“Traga um coração ainda moço, quente e feliz”).
Dance Around the Dead Man
There is a comic interlude in which the three prostitutes, Dona Odette, Madeleine, and Elvira, who figure prominently later on in the drama, come upon the Dead Man’s body and mockingly comment on its rapid deterioration. The hookers get the shock of their lives, however, when the presumably deceased Belt Strangler rises to perform an uproarious song-and-dance routine (“Dance Around the Dead Man”), to their utter consternation.
With its jaunty, hurdy-gurdy-like orchestration and infectious tap-dancing rhythm, this is an outlandishly bizarre episode, filled with a touch of the macabre — a thoroughly ghoulish scene that, while we may scratch our heads in wonderment as to its relevance to the plot, is just another of those inside jokes planted by the authors to remind us that perhaps what we’re really witnessing is a true hell on earth, where the dead refuse to stay dead. This is another way of advertising one of the show’s pet themes, i.e., that one’s past actions and misdeeds won’t stay buried for long (which we will see).
“Take This Woman Far”
We move on to Old Stepmother’s balcony, where a Rapunzel-like Clara complains to her stepmother of the sheltered life she’s been leading as a prisoner in her own home. The scene shifts to Carmen’s parlor, where we meet, in flashback, Amelia’s “godmother,” Dona Rosa. The two witches, one “good” and one “bad” (which one is which can be deemed interchangeable), state their individual cases with respect to the girl Bianca. Amelia remembers her as the pretty little tart that lured Herculano away.
In the middle of Rosa and Amelia’s conversation, Bianca’s figure appears in the background. She’s seen sewing at her window, which mirrors the Snow White story Old Stepmother repeated to Clara earlier on. Bianca pricks her finger on the needle, whereby blood is drawn. This is followed by Amelia’s remark of how the woman does nothing but stare out her window, waiting for Herculano to pass. Rosa insists she’s not a woman at all but a mere child, which if one recalls Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian interpretation of Grimm’s fairy tales, the bleeding is tantamount to Bianca’s having achieved her womanhood — in other words, Rosa’s assertions can’t support this physical confirmation that the child is all but grown up.
Carmen and Rosa, each in their respective time period, tell Amelia the facts of married life: of husbands that abandon their wives for “other women,” and the women who chase after them, in the bluesy number, “Leva essa mulher” (“Take this woman far”). They pronounce a curse upon Bianca, wishing her the worst of luck, not realizing that, despite their imprecations, bad thoughts can only produce more bad thoughts. To their knowledge, it’s always the “other woman” who makes out best.
In view of Herculano’s abandonment, neither Amelia nor Bianca, nor (strangely enough) any of the other characters ever question what led to his leaving, or why the blame for his having fled Amelia’s embrace rests solely on poor Bianca’s shoulders. There is no consideration of Amelia’s involvement in the matter, which or may not have precipitated his departure.
Considering the feeble fellow that Herculano turns out to be, there’s no need for explanations. Indeed, all the males in the story are depicted as feckless and weak-willed. They’re empty-headed and vapid, with continuously roving eyes for a pretty face, which is why the seven young men, who perform the function of a typical Greek chorus, are described in the libretto as “dwarfs”: they are short not in their physical stature but in the shortsightedness of their relationship to women.
Similarly, the women are portrayed as having a like-minded purpose, which is to keep their men from wandering at all costs — even if those men are undeserving of their love, as they often prove throughout.
“Sleep My Little Babe”
In another change of scenery, we are finally in the presence of Herculano and Bianca. Bianca, a raven-haired, rosy-cheeked beauty, is in a hallucinatory state. She spots Amelia’s visage everywhere she turns. To Herculano, the man unworthy of either woman’s affections, Bianca is “seeing things.” It’s all in her head, of course. We take note of how Amelia is frequently shown as complaining about her fate while, on the other hand, her counterpart, Bianca, is equally unsatisfied with her station in life. Contrast this with Clara’s own whining in regard to her situation above.
No sooner has Herculano spoken, when Amelia approaches, watching and waiting behind the scenes. Bianca holds the child she conceived with Herculano in her arms. The baby starts to cry, but Bianca is unable (or incapable?) of silencing it. Taking the child from her, Herculano soothes the wailing infant with a lullaby: “Dorme meu neném que o bicho vem” – “Sleep my little babe, your daddy came.” Bianca continues her lament, insisting she’s being punished for stealing another woman’s spouse, blaming it on a spell that’s been woven around her, with more mischief to come.
The past continues to collide with the present. The characters appear to live in the present and the past simultaneously. All that’s left for them is the “possibility” of change; a dissatisfaction with how things are and an overpowering urge to alter their situation now, which can only affect how things will be in the future.
Somber chords return for the next scene. Amelia, who is faced with Dona Carmen’s rejection of both the Belt Stranger’s heart and wedding band (“This ring is worn. If it belongs to the owner of this heart, it’s an old heart. It’s worthless!”), gets more and more despondent as the time for completion of her task grows shorter and shorter. Feeling somewhat sympathetic toward her client, Carmen suggests an alternative plan. Why not seek out Dona Odette, a longtime friend, who “owes” her a favor or two?
Carmen writes down some instructions and tells Amelia to give them to Odette, who will know what to do. In the interim, Amelia need have no more concerns about Bianca or Herculano. “Leave them to me,” she gloats. Carmen hands Amelia a black book of spells, with directions to practice the dark arts during her stay with Odette and her (ahem) “girls,” as a way of strengthening Amelia’s resolve. Amelia does just that.
“It’s Off to Work We Go”
Glockenspiel and bells are heard, as Clara recreates Snow White’s discovery of the Seven Dwarfs’ hut in the haunted forest, to the tune of “Heigh-Ho.” Interrupting the proceedings, Old Stepmother launches into a spell of her own by reciting the part where the Evil Queen turns herself into a kindly old lady: “Now, begin your magic spell,” she cries.
There is a quick scene change, back to Odette’s boarding house, where Amelia, alone in room number 7, is reading rapidly and excitedly from the black book of spells. At the same time, Carmen is in her parlor, exhorting her tarot cards to show her a sign that all will be well. “Ask, and you will receive,” she sings. “It’s all in the cards!”
Amelia becomes the witch, guiding her life as the book of spells suggests. Carmen is reduced here to the job of observer, coaxing things along and nudging Amelia towards the inevitability of her fate. Carmen disguises herself as a vendor, just as Old Stepmother indicated above, and goes to see Bianca in her home, thus fulfilling her promise to Amelia to “take care” of the young girl.
Transition to Bianca, on her balcony — again, the analogy to Rapunzel trapped in her tower. Carmen pays her a friendly visit. She is outgoing and concerned, and succeeds in worming her way into Bianca’s fortress-like abode.
“Scrub That Dirty Stair”
Meanwhile, the two prostitutes, Elvira and Madeleine, put Amelia to work. They treat her harshly, in the manner of the two stepsisters who made Cinderella’s life a pure hell, by working her fingers to the bone. Amelia is doing the most menial of tasks: scrubbing the floors, washing the clothes, cleaning the staircase, and ironing the clothes.
Suddenly, Amelia has a vision of Herculano: “Seu rosto me persegue em tudo / meu coração é seu – “Your face is with me here, my darling / my heart is in your hands,” she sings, which foreshadows the melody of the ensemble (“De noite o principe me espera / em todos os umbrais” – “At night my prince is waiting for me / his fate is in my hands”) that closes the act. At the height of her confrontation with the whores, Amelia faints from exhaustion. Dona Odette orders that she be put to bed.
Just then, the pure fool Alvaro arrives at the residence. Odette pays little heed to this apparently wet-behind-the-ears boy who wants to be initiated into manhood. However, upon learning he’s the son of her oldest client, Odette suggests an appropriate companion, to be found in room number 7. “But do give her some time to… pull herself together,” she adds.
“The Light of Day is There”
The stage dynamic changes with Bianca’s crude transformation from a gorgeous young girl to a hideous she-creature: disfigured and disguised, her beauty marred and youthful appearance gone, Bianca’s hair is shorn of its luscious locks, while her face is made up to coarsen her features. Softly and gently, the music repeats the theme associated with the Dead Man’s dance, but the intent is drastically different: it’s now a siren’s song, calling Bianca to venture out into the city — Carmen’s invitation to take a figurative bite out of the apple, thus initiating her into Rio nightlife to which she is unaccustomed:
A luz do sol
Espera por você
Calçadas pra você
The light of day
Is there waiting for you
The morning glow
The sidewalks just for you
Now begins the most revelatory number in the act, “Se essa rua” – “If this pathway,” sung by Bianca and Herculano as a duet. The analogy here is of two ships in the night going in opposite directions and passing each other by, with the road less traveled for one of them (i.e., Bianca) leading to new horizons. Herculano attempts to prevent Bianca from leaving — but is he really there? The scene plays out in Bianca’s imagination as a projection of her innermost wants. The fact is: Herculano isn’t present at all. Still, their duet could conceivably have taken place at an earlier time.
The dwarfs materialize with their umbrellas — protection from the wind and snow? Perhaps, or possibly to spare them the fallout from the lies the characters have been wallowing in. Bianca can never convince Herculano to mend his ways (neither can Amelia, only she doesn’t know it yet). Love means something else entirely to this man than it does for Bianca. His idea of marriage is having Bianca locked up for her “protection” and personal use. “Don’t go outside,” he admonishes. “It’s dark, it’s cold, and the wolf is lurking about.” Bianca sees things from a different angle: her future is outside their door (or beyond the portal). It’s another life she longs for, one that Herculano is unwilling to give her. Their scene ends with a deep and passionate kiss.
“Before I Forget Myself in You, Stay”
We’re now in room number 7. Alvaro and Amelia are alone. She takes a dagger out from under the pillow and places it in her hand. Here’s her chance, the heart that she’s been waiting for, one that has never known love. Her goal is within her grasp, her task almost complete. So what does Amelia do? Like Bianca before her, she kisses Alvaro, tenderly, passionately, on the mouth, with Carmen’s voice buzzing in her ears:
Traga um coração
Quente e feliz
Bring me a heart that’s strong
Still young and vibrant
Happy and free
Try as she might, Amelia can’t kill the boy. Instead, she sings a seductive little ditty to accordion accompaniment (reminiscent of French cabaret music), the love song “Agora para sempre” – “Now and forever”, while she undresses the boy. It’s her version of the siren’s song, similar to yet so different from Carmen’s ode to Bianca: bouncy, flavorful, and in three-quarter time. Miraculously (or maybe not), the two young people fall in love. They’re all over each other on Amelia’s bed, as they give themselves over to their passion.
“Time and Again, Nighttime Has Come”
A change of scene finds us back at the Lapa Arches. Men are also looking for “love,” in the arms of other women. Women are plying their trade by exchanging “love” for money. Flash forward to Bianca, who’s trying to get home. Having lost her way, she is desperate to get back to her daughter before Herculano returns. Locked out of people’s homes and hopelessly alone, Bianca is exposed to the elements of wind and snow, which begin to pick up. There’s a veritable blizzard onstage, emblematic of the storm that’s raging inside the characters’ souls.
We return momentarily to Amelia’s room. She tells Alvaro to leave, but he naively refuses. The full moon reveals itself, towering over all. It has replaced the clock from the opening scene as the harbinger of time running out. Amelia insists that Alvaro must go — now! She tells him about the spell, but he contends that there is no spell, that it’s all in her head (sound familiar?). Bianca knocks on every door she finds, but no one responds. The portal is now closed!
The chorus of dwarfs and prostitutes sing of Prince Charming, waiting for his princess. They invade Amelia’s bedroom to remind her that nightfall has arrived: “Mais uma vez / A noite cai” – “Time and again / Nighttime has come.” Bianca repeats the words, “A rua, a rua, a rua, a rua” (“The pathway, pathway, pathway, pathway”) over and over, to no avail.
Clara now comes back onto the scene. She takes a bite out of an apple, the forbidden fruit of truth (or what-have-you). “Snow White still lives,” Old Stepmother announces, “and she’s a thousand times more beautiful than you, Evil Queen.” With that, Amelia lets out a primal scream. She has no one else to turn to, nowhere else to go. She’s at the end of her rope. Whatever will she do…?
End of Act I
(To be continued…)
(With gratitude and acknowledgement to Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, Ed Motta, and Tania Carvalho)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes