Interviews

It’s ‘Jazz Samba’ Time! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Bossa Nova Album

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Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014
Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014

The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with jazz drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, done at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, on June 8, 2014, as part of the Jazz Samba Symposium dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album, Jazz Samba.

William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr. is an internationally respected performer, recording artist, and teacher who has been a member of the Newtown School of Music staff since the 1960s. Currently, Buddy teaches and is the artist in residence at the Community Conservatory of Music located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He studied with Dave Levin in Philadelphia, with classical percussionist Arthur Dextradeur, and with the legendary Joe Morello who was the long-time drumming sensation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Still active and going strong at 79, Buddy has toured the world and continues to lead an all-star band, Jazz Renaissance. His work appeared on three major motion picture soundtracks, six major record labels, and over 40 CDs. In addition, he has biographical listings in both Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties and Barry Kernfeld’s New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.

Josmar Lopes – Now, to set the stage for what occurred in the 1960s, let me give you a little bit of background. Between the years 1958 and 1962, several incidents took place that would bring the country, people, and music of Brazil into sharper focus. It started off with Brazil beating Sweden, 5-2, at the World Cup. That was June 29, 1958. That occurred with the aid of a 17-year-old sensation named Pelé. A few weeks later, João Gilberto, a shy and reclusive – some would say obsessive-compulsive – singer/guitarist from Bahia recorded a 78-rpm single for Odeon Records. You remember the name of the song, Buddy?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – “Chega de Saudade.”

Josmar Lopes – “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”) by the hit songwriting team of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. A year later, on June 12, 1959, Black Orpheus, a film shot on location in Rio during Carnival time, was released in France. This film, with music by Jobim, Vinicius, and Luiz Bonfá, another well known Brazilian musician, was an international sensation. It went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the Golden Globe Award.

Now let’s move another year ahead, [to] April 21, 1960. Brazil inaugurated its futuristic new capital city of Brasilia. It was the brainchild of its then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek, or as he was known to Brazilians, “Jota Ka” (JK). His motto, “Fifty years in five,” was his promise to bring the Brazilian nation into the twentieth century. I think those five years are just about up. In November of 1960, another JK – JFK to be exact – was inaugurated president of the United States. It was part of that Kennedy administration’s cultural exchange program that in March of 1961 the US State Department sent Charlie Byrd on a three-month, 18-country tour of Latin America. The trio included Charlie Byrd, the guitarist, Keter Betts on bass, and our guest Buddy on drums. The year after that, right Buddy, remember the date … 1962, Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, February 13. Three days before my birthday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. 1960s)
Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. late 1960s)

Josmar Lopes – Happy belated birthday! Jazz Samba was recorded at the All Souls Unitarian Church right here in D.C. The album was released on April 20, 1962 and it charted for 70 weeks. It sold half a million copies in 18 months. It was the only jazz album ever to top the pop and jazz Billboard charts. And in 2010, Jazz Samba was officially inducted into…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – The Grammy Awards Hall of Fame.

Josmar Lopes – That’s right. A little bit later in 1962, if any of you remember, in October of 1962, the Missiles of October. We had the Cuban Missile crisis, with tensions heating up between Russia, Cuba, and the US. Buddy, it’s amazing that all this history was packed into just those four years: 1958 to 1962. And here we are, facing another World Cup, coincidentally, in a few weeks. I don’t know if that’s going to go off, but soccer being soccer it’ll come off all right. Brazil should score a goal in that one. But Buddy is still with us, thank goodness. And my first question to you, Buddy, about all this activity that was going on, how did a drummer from Philadelphia get swept up in this grandiose project with the State Department to visit 18 countries in three months?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I was working with a piano trio, the Newton Thomas Trio, a very good trio. And we had played Birdland, the Blue Note in Chicago. We were doing the Virginia Beach Jazz Festival and Charlie Byrd’s Trio was one of the groups that played in the festival. And Dave Brubeck was on the festival, and little did I know that fifteen years later I’d end up studying with his drummer. But Charlie heard us and we did very well on the festival. In fact, we brought the house down and it was a standing ovation and all. And we weren’t supposed to be a big deal. The Brubeck group was supposed to be the star of the festival and, all of a sudden, here we are getting a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed and I was about only 24 at the time.

Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)
Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)

Two nights later, into the club walks Charlie Byrd, with his drummer and his drummer’s wife and his wife. His wife slips me a note under the table. I didn’t know what to think, you know. So I said, “Pardon me, I have to go to the restroom.” And I got up and went into the restroom and I read the note, and it said: “If you’re interested in playing with my group, give me a call at this phone number and we can get together in Washington, D.C. We’ll run over a few tunes and see if it will work.” He wanted Keter’s okay, wanted to make sure Keter was happy with it. And he wanted to make sure that I would work out for him.

As it worked out, I stayed with him for about three years. It was a hard decision to make, to leave the Newton Thomas Trio, because I was quite happy with him. That’s how it all happened. All of a sudden I find that here I’m being asked to go to South America. Charlie says, “How much do you want to go to South America?” I said, 24 years old, “I don’t know. What’s the going rate for drummers to South America these days?” Because I didn’t know. So we went down there and we had a great time. The people were wonderful. I hung out mostly with the local musicians and learned a lot.

Josmar Lopes – Did you get prepped by the State Department prior to going there? Did they give you pointers on how to deal with the locals…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah….

Josmar Lopes – … because of all these political things going on?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, they said, “You’re going to have a lot of press conferences, be careful what you say. They may try to entrap you into saying things. And then put it in print in the newspaper and distort the facts a little bit.” So we had to be really careful about what we said and how we acted, our manners. We were briefed in every city: “You don’t do this in this country. It’s against the customs.” It might be something that was perfectly acceptable in the United States, and we wouldn’t mean any offense by it. But we could do something innocently and cause a big deal, a big scene. So, yeah, we got briefings in just about every city.

Josmar Lopes – How soon after you joined the Charlie Byrd Trio did you set off to South America?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It wasn’t very long at all. It was a matter of maybe weeks, not even months. The funniest part of it is that the very first night that I played with Charlie, he said, “Have you ever recorded?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I made tapes before.” He said, “No, I mean commercial recordings.” Then I said, “Well, not really.” He said, “Well, we have a record date on Saturday.” And that was four days away. “You’re kidding!” And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll play the tunes every night and by the end of the week you’ll know them.” He said, “We get turnover with the crowds, so we’ll play them early on, then we’ll play them again later in the evening. So you’ll get to play everything at least twice a night, for four nights.”

Josmar Lopes – You think you’d get it into your head by then.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, and it turned out just fine, it was a great record date.

Josmar Lopes – So, let’s talk about your trip to Latin America. Which country did you hit first?

Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)
Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Venezuela. We played in Caracas, and then we had to do, uh, well, first of all we didn’t get much of a rest. We got a couple of hours sleep, and then we had to get our plane very early in the morning. After the concert, I was thinking, “Oh, wow, I’m going to be able to go back to the hotel and lie down and get a little rest.” There was a command performance for President Betancourt, and we had to go over to the president’s palace. There were all these guys with machine guns lined up on either side of the walkway. I didn’t have to lift the drum. Everybody was grabbing my stuff and carrying it in. And I play with no shoes on when I play drums. I had my shoes off and I was playing in my stocking feet. People were staring at my feet thinking, “This is impolite. You just don’t take your shoes off in the president’s palace.”

Josmar Lopes – I’m sure they didn’t mind once you started playing.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I explained, “Well, you know, think of it this way: if you were a piano player, would you like to play with gloves on?”

Josmar Lopes – No.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – You want to feel the keys. And I wanted to feel the pedals. I always played with no shoes.

Josmar Lopes – You can keep them on for today, Buddy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I am, I am!

Josmar Lopes – When did you go to Brazil, afterwards?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Actually, we were only in Venezuela that one night. The next day we left and went directly to Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – Did you start in the north and work your way down south?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes. We were in eight cities in Brazil. We were in Brazil for two weeks. It was in Salvador, Bahia, that I met a judge, Carlos Coqueijo Costa.

Josmar Lopes – Tell us about that. That’s your first encounter with Brazilian music, wasn’t it?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, he invited us all over to his house for dinner. And then after dinner, everybody got the guitar and passed it around. And everybody in the family played well. His son was a piano player, but he also played guitar well, and a drummer. They put on João Gilberto records and he put a cardboard album jacket between his knees and started playing brushes on it. Unbelievable brushes! I thought, “Wow, this is really great stuff.” So, I think we went out the very next day, Keter Betts and I went out … and bought the records of Gilberto. There were only two at the time. We bought both of them. We’d go to the [American] Embassy and borrow a little portable record player and play the records in our room. Keter would bring his bass down to my room and we would rehearse. We got it together before we ever finished the tour. We were just anxious to get the sound.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them anything about American rhythms, American jazz drumming, or the style?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, we hung out a lot with the musicians.

Josmar Lopes – You didn’t go to any of those State Department dinners or banquets or anything?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I went to a few, but they get boring pretty fast. And I don’t like martinis for lunch – for breakfast and lunch. By the time we would get up it would be lunchtime already for most people. We hadn’t had breakfast yet. You don’t want to go off to a cocktail party and start drinking martinis on an empty stomach. So, yeah, we hung out with local musicians more than cocktail parties. I mean, the cocktail parties went on forever. Eventually, I just started bowing out.

Josmar Lopes – Probably a good move, I’d think.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I’d have to get some rest.

Josmar Lopes – You wound up, after that occasion … Well, I might have mentioned to you that that judge that you met, Carlos Coqueijo Costa, was a friend of Vinicius de Moraes. He had even written a song that João Gilberto recorded, believe it or not, in 1973. It was called “É preciso perdoar” (“It’s Necessary to Forgive”). So that judge, the reason the family was so musical, was that he had music in his veins.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And he never mentioned any of these things, you know.

Josmar Lopes – Ah, Brazilian modesty. Anyway, you found your tour going to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. Now, that led to a very interesting encounter. I’m sure the audience would like to hear about that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – After our concert in Porto Alegre, this young girl comes up. She was probably of high school age. And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house for lunch tomorrow.” And I said, “Well, I’m married and have a couple of children.” And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house tomorrow anyway. We’re going to play you João Gilberto records.” I said, “Well, Keter and I just went out yesterday and bought those. And we’ve been listening to them.”

Josmar Lopes – Here’s Malu and a picture of Buddy teaching them the drumming, and vice versa.

Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), 1961
Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), Porto Alegre, 1961

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were teaching me more than I was teaching them.

Josmar Lopes – There you go! That’s her in the middle.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So anyway, she said, “Well, then, we’ll teach you how to play the rhythm. My boyfriend is a drummer.” That was Mutinho, and he was a drummer, and also played [guitar], everybody played the guitar very well down there. It was just like you grow up, you learn how to play the guitar; just like you learn how to hit the baseball in this country, since you were a little kid.

Josmar Lopes – That’s a good analogy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So everybody, the first thing you wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. When you were old enough that we could trust you to hold it and you wouldn’t break it, now we’ll show you how to play this chord and that chord. So everybody just knew how to play guitar, everyone. I didn’t meet anyone down there that couldn’t play guitar.

Josmar Lopes – So there you are, surrounded…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – We’re surrounded, her father took off from work that day. Her grandmother was there, all her brothers and sisters were there. Her boyfriend was there, and all her friends from school. It was quite a get-together. They just sat me down and showed me how to play that rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them some American rhythms?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Not that day, no. But I mean, there were many occasions where I would stay up all night with someone, a drummer, who couldn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. We would turn a trash basket upside down and then turn the ice bucket upside down, have an ashtray and with a cocktail stirrer. He would show me rhythms and I would show him jazz rhythms. So it was really a cultural exchange tour, for sure.

Josmar Lopes – In the other countries you went to, did they impress you as much as the sounds that the Brazilians had made?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were all interesting, but I can only recall one rhythm that I fell in love with down in Colombia. It was taught to me by a drummer from Argentina.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, that makes sense!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – He was playing in the hotel room we were staying, his name was José Signo. He and I corresponded quite a bit. He would even send me rhythms written out on paper. But he taught me this one rhythm called the matecumbe, which was really an interesting rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – You demonstrated that for the [Jazz Samba] symposium yesterday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I did.

Josmar Lopes – Fascinating!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It’s an unusual rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – I’ve never heard anything like that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It has one cowbell beat on the first beat of every measure, just one beat. And “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk …” And so you hit one bass-drum beat and one cowbell beat. And then, with your drumsticks, if these were the rims of your drum, they’d go “click, click,” you’d go “bam, click, ka-tick, ka-boom, ka-tick kam, ka-tick, ta-boom-boom, ka-tick boom-kam.”

Josmar Lopes – Sounds like rap.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So you’re hearing: “One, two, three, four, boom bah, two, three, four, boom-bah, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick-tick-ka boom boom, ka-tick-bam, ka-tick-tick-ka-boom-boom, ka-tick.” Then it was such an interesting rhythm. And all the parts were very simple and sparse, but when you put them all together and at the same time, there was a lot going on there.

Josmar Lopes – A lot going on here!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And there was nothing even close to it. I never heard anything like it. I used to play all these Arthur Murray dance parties when I was growing up. And I liked Latin rhythms a lot. I’d get those jobs because I could play the rumba, the mambo, the samba, oh, what was that called, the paso doble, the tango. And it was Arthur Murray dance party, so it was all about doing the dance steps. You had to know how to play all the different rhythms to all the dance steps. All those waltzes … It was good experience for the drummer, because you got to use your entire repertoire of rhythms.

Josmar Lopes – Getting back to Malu — Maria de Lourdes Regina Pederneiras, [but] everyone called her Malu. The young girl you met, did you have a reunion with her sometime later in life? 

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes, she came up to visit Margie [Marjorie Danciger] and me. Margie is my best friend and she also … Well, I would call her the best manager in the world, if you want to call her a manager. She sure manages me. Anyway, Malu came up and visited us after 50 years. The funny thing is, a few years before we were talking about Malu, and Margie said, “Why don’t you call her up?” I said, “I don’t have her phone number.” She said, “Well, I’ll get her phone number.” And I don’t know how she did it, but she got online and she got the phone, and she talked to information. She ended up getting the right phone number and I called Malu and left a message. She couldn’t believe that I had found her phone number, living up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and finding her phone number in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – I’d like to show a picture of you and Malu, in October of 2010. These are the two friends after almost 50 years.

Malu & Buddy, Bucks Cty, PA, October 2010
Malu & Buddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, October 2010

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah.

Josmar Lopes – She looks the same.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I don’t know if I should read you this, because I’m not much of a singer.

Josmar Lopes – Before [you] do, let me tell you what Malu said of your ultimate success.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah. Why don’t you read that thing that she sent to me.

Josmar Lopes – I’ll tell you, she wrote here at the time that she was a fifteen-year-old girl. Yup, “I was just a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who loved jazz and played the piano and sang bossa nova.” As a matter of fact, João Gilberto was a very close friend of her uncle. He was single and lived with his parents. There are a lot of funny stories of João Gilberto being locked in the bathroom and playing guitar all night. He was a night owl and slept all day. But she came down and saw the Charlie Byrd Trio play in Porto Alegre, and her English teacher recommended it to her classmates. She attended the show. She said here that “there was a good looking young man playing the drums. He looked so American, and was so absorbed by the music as he played. And he played so well that when the show was over I climbed up to the stage and spoke to the lady.” That was Ginny Byrd, Charlie Byrd’s wife – she was doing the singing. She was singing “Cry Me a River,” and she wrote down the lyrics for Malu and she loved it.

Charlie Byrd, with wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961
Charlie Byrd, with his wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961

Then she found out that you were 24 years old and married and decided to try to make friends with you. “An American musician. Imagine! And he had such good manners and was welcoming. I told him that I knew João Gilberto and that I had a friend who was a drummer and could teach [Buddy] the bossa nova beat.” You seemed quite interested, so she invited you to have lunch with the family the next day and invited Mutinho along, the drum player, and that’s what happened. Years later, this is what she said 50 years later when you picked up the conversation again and the relationship: “All of this may not have happened if we hadn’t done what we did.”

Buddy Deppenschmidt – That’s so true. And she’s just as important a player as I am in this whole picture. Because if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have even known how to do this. And probably if it hadn’t been for my intense interest, we wouldn’t have done that. So, I was obsessed with it. I just did everything but hit Charlie over the head to make him do this thing, and finally … Charlie’s wife is the one who really convinced him to do it. I figured that was the best way to get to Charlie, it was through his wife rather than through Keter. Keter tried, but Charlie didn’t seem that excited about it at the time. And he had a reputation for playing the classical guitar and bluesy, kind of jazz stuff on the classical guitar. He figured, “Well, I better stick with this because it’s working so far. And I was saying, “No, this is just perfect for you, this is guitar music and you play guitar. You just got back from South America, and it would be so timely to do this now, rather than wait and have someone else do it. Why don’t we do it?”

Josmar Lopes – Whose suggestion was it to bring Stan Getz into the project?

Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)
Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It was my suggestion to bring Stan Getz in. But Ginny really is the one who talked [Charlie] into doing it. Fortunately, Ginny listened to what I had to say. And many a night we would sit there in the booth, while Charlie was doing his classical set. I would say, “Look, Ginny, tell him he should do this. This is going to be a great thing for him.” I didn’t know it was going to be that great, but it really turned out to be a very good thing for him. It was good all the way around, it was good for everyone. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it hadn’t been good for me, too. So I have to admit that it was good for all of us.

Josmar Lopes – Who was the alternative to Stan Getz, if you couldn’t get him to do Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I thought that the only other person that I could think of who might do it well would be Paul Desmond.

Josmar Lopes – The Dave Brubeck Quartet…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah. I had a lot of Dave Brubeck records that I listened to Paul’s solos, and they were nice and fluid and loose and lyrical. But Stan was my first choice. I thought he would be ideal. As it turned out we did it with Stan. But I was thinking that, you run into some problem with the record company and they don’t want to let their boy record with you, then that would be a good alternate playing.

Paul Desmond on Tenor sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)
Paul Desmond on alto sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)

Josmar Lopes – Speaking of music and lyrics, I think you have a little song of your own.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I wrote this for Malu when she came to visit.

Josmar Lopes – Based on “One Note Samba” (“Samba de uma nota só”)?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, it’s based on the “One Note Samba.” And if you’ll forgive my poor vocal quality, I’ll try to sing it for you.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, Buddy, here’s JazzTimes, the magazine that the original article, “Give the Drummer Some,” appeared in, which finally gave you credit for bringing the Brazilian beat to American ears. What I’m going to do is accompany you, your rhythm section, beating on top of Stan Getz’s head.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, my God … Okay, well, here it goes. I’ll give you four beats:

Seems that more than 50 years have past

Since the day I saw you last

You shared your music and your song

This reunion took so long

 

Tom Jobim, Gilberto and Brazil

Seems somehow I just can’t get my fill

Of the samba rhythm, what a dance

You sparked a musical romance!

 

When I got back to the States

I surely knew that I was on a mission

No time for fishin’

Even though I made it happen

I guess drummers just don’t get commission

So keep on wishin’

 

Though ‘twas not authentic, just our version

Jazz and samba started mergin’

I guess we helped to spread the word

And bossa nova sure got heard

 

Now today the year’s two thousand ten

We’ve a friendship which will never end

And the message that I want to say is

Bossa Nova’s here to stay!!!

 

So that kind of tells the whole story … in one chorus.

Josmar Lopes – And on that note, let’s have a round of applause for the man who brought the Brazilian beat to American ears!

With gratitude and appreciation to William Henry “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr., for his kindness in allowing the use of our interview to be published on this blog site.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’ — A Candid Talk with Director, Writer, and Producer Gerald Thomas

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Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura
Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura

Trying to explain one’s motivation and art, while defending an individualistic view of the same, can be a time-consuming impediment to progress for any professional artist, as it surely must be for most people inside or outside the public domain.

But to say that Gerald Thomas, the talented director, writer, producer, illustrator, and graphic designer, has a particularly “individualistic” point of view is clearly an understatement: he is absolutely, without hesitation, Brazil’s most controversial contemporary stage figure to date.

His copious plays and uniquely identifiable theater pieces, along with an impressive and ever-expanding body of operatic work — not to mention his London Dry Opera Company and previous collaborations with composer Philip Glass — have enlivened the dramatic and performing arts to no end (See the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/getting-to-the-bottom-of-gerald-thomas/).

With constant “exposure” of his avant-garde ideas in the press and in the theater, however, Thomas has been forced at times into expressing his own level of frustration at audiences in no uncertain terms, as evidenced by his much-ballyhooed butt-baring episode at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, back in August 2003 — an episode that elicited an enormous amount of media coverage.

Residing in London for most of the remainder of that year, he returned to New York in March 2004 for the opening of his play Anchorpectoris (The United States of the Mind) at La MaMa Experimental Theater, on E. Fourth Street in Greenwich Village — the scene of his first stage triumphs with ex-mentor, the late Ellen Stewart, and the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.

In this interview, originally completed in the U.S. in December 2005, shortly after the successful Brazilian run of his Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”) with actor Marco Nanini, and updated during parts of 2008-2009, Gerald quite candidly delved into, and expanded upon, a wide range of topics, including his early career as an illustrator and in the opera house; his major artistic and literary influences; his personal recollections of John Lennon’s death and 9/11; his criticism of Brazil’s former Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil; and his future plans, among which were his long-awaited, stage-acting and directorial film debuts, as well as the release of his book, Suicide Note.

Politics mingled with art — ah, there’s the Thomas rub! And if ever there were an example of the two intertwining and becoming indisputably one, then Gerald Thomas — an individual whose palm print can be found on every facet of the performing arts — would be held up as the premier exponent, Brazil’s poster-boy for artistic and political activism, and a true, modern-age Renaissance man for the new millennium.

Josmar Lopes—The first thing I’d like to know more about, as I’m sure our readers would, too, is the origin of your name: is it really Gerald Thomas?

Gerald Thomas—It’s my first and middle name. The full name is Gerald Thomas Sievers.

J.L.—Have you had any identity crises or cultural clashes because of your American-sounding moniker?

Young Gerald
Young Gerald

G.T.—I’ve always been a “Nowhere Man” or, when I was a kid in school, a “Nowhere Boy.” I came to realize that very soon, because I never, ever fitted in. I was always from “abroad,” from “another culture.” At home, we never ate what the people of the country we lived in ate and that made me feel terrible. I remember the very first time I was invited (by the neighbors on the ground floor in Leblon, Rio) to come and eat dinner with them. I was stunned at the amount, the variety of different foods on the table, amongst which [were] black beans. We had been in Rio for about a year and all I knew was boiled potatoes and meat of some sort or another. Suddenly, this colorful rainbow opens up and I felt so great about Brazil.

J.L.—You learned recently that you were born in New York City but moved to Rio at an early age. Despite most articles claiming you were from Brazil, how has living in places like the Big Apple, Rio de Janeiro, and London contributed to a better or worse sense of your own individual identity?

G.T.—In Brazil, I have to say that I was born there, given the nature of my criticism of the government and Gilberto Gil, the minister of himself. No foreigner would ever be able to say such things without being thrown overboard. But a real and intriguing question does exist about the place where I was born: I do have three birth certificates and I do carry a German passport. It’s weird in a way to feel as though you belong to all of those places and, yet, the only place I can really call home are a couple of blocks on the East Side of Manhattan, between St Mark’s Place and E. Third Street on Second Avenue. I guess my parents must have registered me every time my father was moved by Lloyd’s Insurance from one country to another. That may have been a smart move.

J.L.—Indeed it was. But have you ever experienced a feeling of loss when you go abroad because of your country of origin or your Jewish background, in view of the apparent pride you have in being Brazilian?

G.T.—I know that the Jewish thing should play an enormous role here…but it doesn’t really. I guarantee you that I would be a rich man now if I had played that card but reality has it that I never felt very comfortable with those rituals. My bar mitzvah was awkward, I felt terribly awkward, having to memorize all that stuff phonetically. Plus the “father that brought me up” wasn’t Jewish himself and, during the years as a volunteer at Amnesty International in London, I got to know a lot of Catholic priests who were protecting political prisoners in Brazil. I thought that those people were so great. They showed me Italy for the first time. It was through their eyes that I saw the Vatican, its little holes and labyrinths…

J.L.—It’s a fascinating place. Since then, you’ve been all over the world, practically, and you’re always on the move. Are you comfortable with the ever-increasing globetrotting demands of your career?

G.T.—Always less comfortable because traveling nowadays is a problem, it consumes far more energy out of you with all the “checkpoints,” and cities are growing out of control, making traffic impossible, irritatingly so. I used to be productive in planes: open up the laptop and work. Nowadays, the guy sitting next to me in business class is just concerned with getting drunk. So no, thanks. I’m not going to wait until his margarita spills all over my PC.

J.L.—I don’t blame you. In contrast, throughout his life composer Richard Wagner was often referred to as a man “possessed.” Are you similarly possessed, and by what?

G.T.—I try to stay away from things like that. And as for what’s written about “mythological” characters, one never knows. Was it really so? Some people are furious, some are angry, others are simply frustrated and have tantrums and History can turn all that into “being possessed.” I am as cool as can be because when I have dealt with the actors, I remain in the theater and deal with all the other technical aspects of the play or opera I’m staging.

J.L.—That’s probably the best approach. With opera being such an international endeavor, how many languages are you fluent in?

G.T.—I really only speak three languages: English, Portuguese and German. The rest is parroting my way around the world.

J.L.—Yet you speak with a slight British accent. Would it have been more difficult for you career-wise if your name had been Caetano or Chico and you had spoken with a Brazilian accent? Or spoke no English at all?

G.T.—Well, that is difficult to answer since there are thousands of British or American or Australian or Canadian directors in the world who’ve achieved nothing in spite of their well-spoken English. I think that I owe my position in the world to my talent. Bluntly speaking, that’s it.

J.L.—I agree. Speaking of talent, who was the person or persons whose views influenced you the most as a youth?

G.T.—Samuel Beckett and Caetano Veloso, Hélio Oiticica and Haroldo de Campos. Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Duchamp. Saul Steinberg, Steinberg and Steinberg.

J.L.—That’s quite an impressive list. Where did opera first come in to play and how did you eventually come to stage it?

G.T.—That was in 1987 in Rio, and The Flying Dutchman was the victim. A very conceptual piece to begin with, I decided to stage it in such a way that the place was Berlin, East and West, divided by the Wall. The dead man (the Dutchman) and his vessel would appear on the East Side, and Senta would be waiting for him on one of those wooden platforms built by the Allies, forced to look over onto the other side. But all of that was metalanguage, since it all played as an installation watched by a “false” audience inside a mega-exhibition hall: the Kassel Documenta. So, two years before the fall of the Wall, it had already become an “installation of the past, an artwork worth nothing compared to the thousands dead trying to cross it.”

J.L.—Have your musical and operatic tastes subsequently evolved over the years?

G.T.—Yes and no: I have gone back and decided on opposite extremes such as Mahler and Schoenberg. I could sit all day and just vary between recordings of their works…

J.L.—You seem to show a strong affinity for “modern” music, i.e., Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ferruccio Busoni, and others, which you’ve used frequently in your pieces. Is there a specific reason for this?

G.T.—But I also steal from Wagner and from Mendelssohn and from Haydn. There isn’t a specific choice for the moderns, though it gives me pleasure to work with someone who is alive and well, rather than some corpse.

J.L.—Have you ever used or thought of using Brazilian classical or popular music in any of your works?

G.T.—Other than Villa-Lobos, I know very little about Brazilian classical music. I do know how to drum the samba, since I am one of a very few allowed into Mangueira to be part of the drum section of their victorious samba school.

J.L.—Then you must know Marisa Monte, whose father was connected at one time to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School in Rio?

G.T.—I was an “adviser” to her, when she first put her legs and voice on stage, through the hands of Nelson Motta: that was in 1986.

J.L.—You started out as a graphic artist and illustrator—a very good one, I might add. How has this early background in art and design bolstered your work on the stage?

Gerald Thomas art work
Gerald Thomas art work

G.T.—At age fourteen I managed to creep my way into the rehearsals of Victor Garcia’s version of Genet’s The Balcony in São Paulo. Undoubtedly one of the greatest stagings of the twentieth century, this vertical production not only caused a hell of an impression on me, but I also learned a great deal about the theater while being there, every day (and night, ALL night!!!). I learned what “modern and experimental theater” was and how that somehow integrated with the visual arts. In other words, I was experiencing a live Bosch painting, as it were. Then, two years later, in London, I sort of “infiltrated” the Royal Shakespeare Company while Peter Brook was rehearsing his Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, all the visual arts and dramatic arts came together as a whole.

J.L.—You once worked at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other newspapers. Do you still find time to illustrate for publications that are outside your normal field?

G.T.—No fun no more! I illustrate the programs of my own plays and the posters and I “design” or draw each and every one of the scenes that are to be staged…but that’s about it as far as drawing is concerned, commercially. I have a lot of recent material, but I keep all that to myself. Who knows… one day there will be an exhibition?

J.L.—Most recently, you’ve designed the posters and programs for Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”), starring Marco Nanini and staged at Teatro SESC in Vila Mariana, São Paulo.

G.T.—Yes, I’m involved in every single aspect of the theater, even in the soundtrack. Too involved!!! Some call me obsessed but I just find it normal since it’s an object of my creation and nobody else knows exactly what’s going on in this head of mine. So, instead of spending hours explaining, I might as well just do it myself.

J.L.—Do you prefer doing it all yourself, or do you leave certain tasks to others?

G.T.—Well, let’s say I delegate a little.

J.L.—Is this a form of “control” over the creative process?

G.T.—Look: we play being God! So, in the black box we can control the temperature, the smoke, the lights, the volume, the exactness of everything. That’s why I am present as much as I can at every performance. I have a little corner where I hide and even communicate with the players and gesture to them frantically, according to how the performance is going that night. Since I give all the cues, I can change things on the spot. I tell the actors in a clear voice that they can understand (when the PA system is loud enough) and, there it is: a brand new scene, created on the spot, on that very night for that specific audience, depending if there was some MAJOR news that day.

J.L.—Moving on to Brazilian pop music, bossa nova, seventies rock and Tropicália, were you attracted to any one style over another?

G.T.—I was very involved with the Tropicalistas. Still think that this was one of the most innovative movements ever! On the other hand, I was going to The Royal Albert Hall to some classical symphony, or to Berlin to watch Herbert von Karajan, or to see and listen to Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin here at the Filmore or at the Earl’s Court Arena.

J.L.—Do you still enjoy the music of Jimi Hendrix? The Beatles? John Lennon?

G.T.—I progressed as times progressed. I loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam and so many new bands out there that this interview would become as long as the Yellow Pages. But I still go back to the old icons, sure!

J.L.—You do resemble Lennon, you know, especially in your earliest photographs. You once portrayed him on the stage, did you not?

G.T.—Yes, that was meant to be a joke. Os Reis do Ié Ié Ié (“A Hard Day’s Night”) was the reunion of the Dry Opera Company and it was to have had only TWO performances. But you know how things go. Offers come in and the whores that we are…we end up accepting them!

Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (NY Times)
Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (New York Times)

J.L.—You posted a poignant remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death on your blog, http://www.geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com. Do you remember the shooting?

G.T.—As if it were yesterday! It was a spooky day for me, because it so happens that I had brought a former political prisoner from Brazil, a poet himself—Alex Polari de Alverga and wife—and all he wanted was to be photographed in front of the Dakota building. So, that’s what we did that day. Almost all afternoon we were there, outside Lennon’s door. Little did I know what was to follow: When I dropped the couple off at an apartment that I was vacating and driving myself to my new Village loft, I heard Scot Muny come to the microphone and make the announcement. Unbelievable. I rushed over to the Upper West Side (out of instinct, I don’t know…) and found a bunch of people there in tears…

J.L.—You were an eyewitness to 9/11, and from your apartment window, if I’m not mistaken. How did that terrible event affect you personally?

G.T.—I am not the same any more. I’m on medication. I lost friends. Witnessing what I did, as did millions of other New Yorkers… it changed my life, Joe. It changed the world…Sometimes I’m up at night rethinking the entire scene, over and over and over and over…

J.L.—How did these feelings about 9/11 compare to what you felt after Lennon’s untimely end?

G.T.—If the “dream was ever over,” it is NOW.

J.L.—Have these two tragedies soured you on living in large cities?

G.T.—Which two tragedies do you mean, 9/11 and Lennon? I wouldn’t even begin to compare… Terrorism is something so abominable and incomparable to individual murder by a crazy lunatic!

J.L.—Let’s talk about literature and poetry, something that has occupied you personally and professionally for the better part of forty years. When did you first learn about concrete poetry and the de Campos brothers?

G.T.—I was fourteen years old, living here in NYC with Hélio Oiticica, and he wouldn’t stop talking about the de Campos brothers. And he had some of their early works. So, I picked up whatever I could and started to read them, or leaf through those “pages.” I was fascinated, as you can imagine, because there I saw a mixture of words and images, almost something in 3-D, touchable and so “lucid,” inexplicably so. Words meaning others and it came to my perception that early on there was this “thing” called metalanguage. I was addicted at that age. Have been since.

J.L.—What other literary figures impressed you the most as an artist?

G.T.—Oh, there is Beckett—which also later developed into a personal relationship lasting until his death—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Hegel, Kafka, Kafka, Kafka, and the Greeks, and as I sat in the British Museum Reading Room doing my studies, so many authors came across my eyes: it would be silly to name all of them. It would also trivialize them. But there was this one William Shakespeare who still hasn’t left me and I am not intending to leave him either.

J.L.—You’ve presented numerous works by your close friend Mr. Beckett, along with Shakespeare, Brecht, Kafka, Heiner Müller, and others. What contributions have they made toward the overall formation of your art?

Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall
Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall)

G.T.—No, I’ve never done Brecht (not that I can remember), but I have been a guest of the Berliner Ensemble, during the days when Berlin was still divided by the Wall. Well, all of those playwrights are—combined—part of what I am. If put together, vertically and horizontally, with what I have lived through empirically, the stories I was brought up with (the Holocaust) and the theater I built into my wardrobe as a child in order to “be somewhere”… what I’m trying to say is that ALL of which I have read and seen (and still do) causes an enormous impression on me.

That’s why I still don’t know exactly what to make of 9/11 and seeing the World Trade Center being hit. Being that the WTC were the towers of my generation: except for the Citicorp building, the rest of NYC was all built. I saw those two faceless monsters going up: they were the Warhol buildings (multiplications) or the Godot buildings: “nothing in two acts,” as Walter Kerr once described it in The New York Times. He later resigned, this critic that is, because he realized that Waiting for Godot was indeed THE masterpiece of the twentieth century and he didn’t have perception then, in the fifties. He said goodbye to his readers by saying that he must have ruined hundreds of lives of talented authors and actors and the like.

J.L.—You’re a prolific writer yourself, as well as a playwright and journalist, having contributed a number of articles to Folha de S. Paulo, Jornal do Brasil, O Globo, and other publications. Have you ever considered giving up show business for a career as a critic or political commentator?

G.T.—Never! I keep a journal. This journal is, finally, going to be published next year. The title is Suicide Note. I was offered a column in the most prestigious page in the most prestigious paper in the world (just guess), but in order to do that, I would have to give everything else up. I would have to be a “political traveler.” As much exposure as that would give me and throw me right into the limelight of mainstream AmeriKa, I declined because I cannot justify breathing on this planet without the theater or the opera. So, I will continue doing my work and other people, such as Wladimir Krisinsky, David George, Haroldo de Campos, Flora Süssekind, and so many others, will contribute with their opinion. Um Encenador de Si Mesmo (“The Staging of the Self”) is a compilation of such texts.

J.L.—Your stage productions bear the hallmarks of silent cinema, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, film noir, and Theater of the Absurd—have I left anything out?

G.T.—Yes. You’ve left “me” out.

J.L.—I stand corrected! In fact, you’ve peeled away most theatrical elements down to their barest essentials—that is, little or no dialogue, stylized acting, non-specific sets, and dramatic, sophisticated lighting. Is this what you’ve tried to accomplish with your Dry Opera Company?

G.T.—No, that is because I’ve chosen such scenes to go on a tape to travel commercially around the world. I chose precisely the most viable scenes to go on such a tape: but if you saw the pieces in their entirety, you’d see a lot (and some people actually have complained in the eighties that there was “verbal hemorrhage”) of text in those plays.

J.L.—A while back, a New York Times piece hinted at your early fascination with light and shadow—and there’s certainly no shortage of light, shadow, and smoke on display throughout most of your works. Are you still as captivated by these effects as you once were, or have you moved beyond this aspect of your art to other things?

G.T.—I think that, like everyone else, I go through phases. This latest play, A Circus of Kidneys and Livers, has very little of those: it’s basically the text and the actors that matter.

Um Circo de Rins e Figados ("A Circle of Kidneys and Livers")
Poster for Um Circo de Rins e Figados (“A Circle of Kidneys and Livers”)

J.L.—Good point. That said, Orson Welles was once described as the “boy wonder” of the stage, a master at multitasking who could act, write, paint, design, produce, direct, market, and promote his works—all at the same time. As formidably talented as he undoubtedly was, Welles spent his entire life actively selling the myth of his supposed “genius” to all comers. Would you categorize yourself as a genius in the Welles mold, i.e., someone who writes, directs, produces, markets, promotes, illustrates, and innovates, with the same non-stop intensity as he showed in his youth?

G.T.—No, but I fake it just as he—later in life—claimed he did. F for Fake is a great film. I would throw rotten eggs at any artist who would consider himself a genius! Seriously! At this day and age, after deconstructivism, iconoclasty… genius? Give me a break!

J.L.—Besides physically, what characteristics differentiate you from a Welles?

G.T.—Well, if I had accomplished Citizen Kane at age twenty-five, I would seriously give myself up as satisfied. It’s one of the best movies ever, EVER made. I’ve never thought of myself as anything close to Welles. In fact, while he was still alive, I almost came close to inviting him to play Hamm, in Beckett’s Endgame. That was right after directing the legendary Julian Beck, who died while we were touring with The Beckett Trilogy, 1985.

J.L.—Many felt that Welles peaked early on and never recaptured the inspiration he initially showed with his classic Citizen Kane. You’re 55 now—that’s more than twice Welles’ age at the height of his fame—and you’ve accomplished so much more in the theater than he ever did. What would you still like to do that you haven’t done as yet, theatrically?

G.T.—You must be joking! Welles was truly an INTERNATIONAL CELEB, and with clout. Whether what he did or didn’t do in the theater was good or not, I don’t know. The photos make things look rather kitsch. People who have seen it and described it to me say that it stank! But who am I to judge? Look at where the boundaries of my work stop and look at Welles!!!!!! My obit will be one paragraph long (if that!), while his…

J.L.—Your most favorable reviews have been for works that thrive on controversial subjects. Do you identify personally with the struggles of the protagonists of Moses und Aron, Doktor Faust, Tristan und Isolde, and Don Giovanni?

G.T.—I actually do. Moses especially, with the stuttering problem. And with the fact that it was a “spoken/notated” part, especially difficult to memorize for a player, when the entire orchestra is blasting notes of a completely different nature. Plus, that biblical subject matter does interest me very much—always has—so… Schoenberg’s life itself has always interested me, or, rather, fascinated me. So, putting it all together: Busoni and Schoenberg go hand-in-hand; Faust by Goethe is my favorite book (and until this date I have not entirely deciphered it, either in German or in English, or in Haroldo de Campos’s version: Deus e o Diabo na Terra de Fausto—“God and the Devil in the Land of Faust”). There you have the perfect subjects for me to delve into the darkest areas of the humanities, so to speak.

J.L.—You changed Faust’s profession from alchemist to artist—a painter, to be exact. Was this a conscious choice on your part, a sort of autobiographical statement?

G.T.—Certainly autobiographical…

J.L.—Were you deliberately placing yourself into the stage action and are you a frustrated actor at heart?

G.T.—Not anymore! I premiere, as an actor, next April 2006, in Asfaltaram o Beijo (“A Kiss Cemented Over”), an homage I pay to Beckett and the years we spent meeting in Paris.

J.L.—Do you regard yourself as more of an individualist and outsider, much in the manner of a Moses or a Faust?

G.T.—A total outsider, always. I was talking to Philip Glass just now and was telling him about the success Circus had, and how one has to constantly renew this pact with the world “within”, with the audience and with the press…It’s as if the world were a big memory bank that, given a month or two of our absence, would forget us altogether.

J.L.—Have you thought about tackling other characters of this type, for example, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, or Berg’s Wozzeck?

G.T.—I am ready for all three of them.

J.L.—Aren’t you really more like Moses’ brother, Aron, a sort of manipulator of language and the spoken word?

G.T.—The image of me in the press certainly may appear so. But that has to do with the fact that the press is lazy. I ask you: how can any one person manipulate the press? How do you do that? With money? Drugs? Chocolate? Sex? How exactly? What does that phrase mean? As in a previous answer, I am timid and profoundly involved with sensitive questions about the nature of who we are. I am also very traumatized about the nature of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Aron wasn’t concerned with any of that: he merely wanted to sell his golden calf.

J.L.—Nothing you’ve done on the stage could possibly be construed as being a part of the mainstream. Has this “inaccessibility” to the general public, as it were, bothered you in any way?

Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)
Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)

G.T.—Sometimes the media builds this image out of nothing, just as it always has throughout History with not-so-easily-consumable-artists. But when some audience member walks in openhearted, he/she will find that my work isn’t all that inaccessible after all.

J.L.—Wouldn’t you prefer to be less on the cutting-edge and enjoy rather more widespread critical success?

G.T.—I’ve been given all the awards there were. The Molières and the (forget the names, really). I dropped the last Molière just to show the audience in Paris that it was made of chalk and not marble, and said quite bluntly that I hated to be endorsed by the middle classes. Those awards are given out by critics. I have no complaints, except for financial ones.

J.L.—In your opinion, is the notoriety you’ve obtained the best measure of triumph in your case, or are there other modes of measurements?

G.T.—I think that everyone who earns a certain amount of notoriety does so because of a number of factors: the media construct its own circus and make you into a “complex” and complicated “personality” (o polêmico) and the rest, of course, has to do with the work, with the fact that I am, in a way, untouchable, because I work in so many countries and have the endorsement of the top critics and the top houses in the world.

J.L.—Your frustration did manifest itself strongly at Rio’s Teatro Municipal in 2003, where you bared your buttocks after being roundly booed for Tristan und Isolde. Would you care to elaborate on what led to that encounter?

G.T.—I had received news that Haroldo de Campos had died just before the opening. That had already left me in a state. The boos don’t bother me. They actually amuse me. You can see that in the tape I sent you where I deliberately include minutes of it, as I enter the stage, during the curtain call after Flying Dutchman. But when I hear a rehearsed chorus from the first few rows, “Judeuzinho, volta pro campo!” (“Little Jew boy, go back to the concentration camp”), that… made my blood pressure rise up and… I lost it. It took me a year to get acquitted, and in Brasília, by the Supreme Court!

J.L.—Did the ruckus have anything to do with the appearance of a third major character introduced by you into the drama, namely Dr. Sigmund Freud?

G.T.—Absolutely yes! And the fact that I used cocaine as an analogy for the love/death potion given by Brangäne to Isolde. A mess from the start. Pressure from the start because the artistic director of the Teatro Municipal knew my concept an entire month before I left London, since I had published it in my column, at the time, in the now nearly defunct Jornal do Brasil.

J.L.—That was quite an unusual touch, wouldn’t you say, to have the title characters analyzed by modern history’s most famous shrink?

G.T.—That’s my job! Otherwise, just have the conductor stage the damned thing, as Karajan did so many times. Why call me? To sell tickets and fill the house. The Municipal has never been so sold out EVER!!!!!

J.L.—Do you find Brazilian audiences are less tolerant of these sorts of novelties than other audiences are, say, the Americans or the Europeans?

G.T.—No, they’re just as open minded. But not when it comes to Richard Wagner! Man! Wagner is stronger in Brazil than anywhere else… I mean, the traditionalists. But on the following nights we saw none of those problems. And may I point out that the troublemakers were just a handful within two thousand five hundred well behaved, opera-lovin’ people.

Gerald Thomas
Gerald Thomas

J.L.—But do think about staging Wozzeck one day—hopefully sooner than later. I had a brainstorm while listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast wherein I imagined the whole thing set at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the title character a U.S. Army soldier just returned from Iraq; haunted by visions of prisoner abuse at Abu Gharaib; then acting out his delusions by killing his live-in girlfriend—it has your signature all over it!

G.T.—What a great idea!!!!!! But which opera house would invite me to do such thing? As far as I’m concerned, I’m standing in line already! But where, and when? That’s the problem: like with anything else in today’s world, the titles offered to me are either totally unknown avant-garde or the very well-known and overdone pieces.

J.L.—What are your views on the current state of classical music and opera in Brazil?

G.T.—You know as well as I do that Brazil moves in waves and nothing lasts. Some say this is a good thing, some say it’s bad. It’s certainly the opposite of Europe and their secular cultural struggles, which never seem to end. It’s still the eternal anti-Schiller play and so on, or the latest version of the “anti-Hamlet” for the hundredth time. So, Brazil is very creative since this lack of tradition liberates its artists from this heavy commitment to battle these ghosts. Yet, I find that this also leaves an incredible emptiness which leads to the popularity of the soap opera culture (novelas) and the overwhelming LOVE Brazil has with television, more so than the U.S. (I find). So, as for your question, classical music and opera haven’t made a mark in Brazil because year in, year out there will be a Sala São Paulo, for instance, with heavy emphasis on classical programming—which is fantastic. But will it last past this current mayor? Or the next?

J.L.—What can be done to improve the unfortunately low expectations for classical artists and the performing arts there?

G.T.—Famine and poverty are the first priorities. To hell with the arts!

J.L.—Has the Ministry of Culture done much in the past few years to give aid and comfort to the arts?

G.T.—Gilberto Gil has certainly done a lot for himself! He is the Minister of Himself, and the ministry is called the “Ministério Gilberto Gil de Morte à Cultura” (The Gilberto Gil Ministry of Death to Culture). His fees for performing around the world have tripled and he simply loves to travel with Lula and shake hands with heads of state worldwide. It’s a scandal, it’s a shame and, yet, nobody says anything about it because the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers’ Party) is a true Stalinist revengeful party and it wouldn’t amaze me if, soon, there were a blacklist: something equivalent to the McCarthy era here, except in reverse. Dreadful!

J.L.—What are some of your future plans with respect to opera? Is there anything you can talk about openly?

G.T.—I’m involved in certain German operas at this moment that are almost embarrassing to mention: I call them train station noise (at 5 a.m., when the trains are pulling in) but I have to direct these so-called “avant-garde” things because they pay and they pay well. There is also an opera “in development” with Philip Glass, which is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Bayreuth says it wants me in about one hundred years from now.

J.L.—This latest Thomas-Glass collaboration is exciting news for fans. In the past, many theater and film directors often ventured into opera. There was a time when Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Alfred Lunt, and Margaret Webster were all actively involved with its staging. This trend has returned somewhat with the operatic participation of Werner Herzog, John Schlesinger, William Friedkin, the late Anthony Minghella, and even Woody Allen. Do film directors have a better “eye” for stage detail than, say, the average opera or theater director has?

G.T.—I usually find that film directors are a total flop on the stage: here are two completely different languages. You might as well call a bricklayer to do the job! People are under the impression that “performing art” is one and the same. That is the biggest and dirtiest mistake ever. Imagine if you were to call Picasso to retouch or restore the Sistine Chapel, or Francis Bacon, for that matter. Michelangelo and the two I’ve mentioned are all involved in the “painting” media, but sectors are not to be confused.

J.L.—Have you given any thought to directing your own movies?

G.T.—Yes, I begin shooting Ghost Writer in about a year from now. I’m still developing the screenplay.

J.L.—What else would you like to direct, if given the chance?

G.T.—I’m an obsessive writer, so I’ll just continue to write my pieces. I think that History needs to move forward and we need to tell the stories of the times we live in, in whatever way we can. If we just keep on re-staging The Seagull over and over and over, or the classics, we won’t be telling people five hundred years years from now what the twenty-first century was about.

J.L.—That’s so true. By the way, do you have many friends or acquaintances in the movie business?

G.T.—Yes, I’m very close to Hugh Hudson, who directed Chariots of Fire, amongst other wonderful films, such as American Revolution; and Cacá Diegues, the Brazilian filmmaker.

J.L.—You made a cameo appearance in the film Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) by Brazilian director Walter Salles Jr. (Central do Brasil, Dark Water). How did it feel to be directed by someone else instead of your doing the job yourself?

Terra Estrangeira ("Strange Land") Photo: Daniela Thomas
Terra Estrangeira (“Foreign Land”) Photo: Daniela Thomas

G.T.—Oh, please don’t remind me of that. If I could…if I had the money I’d buy those frames and cut myself out of that movie…I wasn’t directed. Someone just said “roll” and there I was.

J.L.—You’re probably the most well-known, most talked about, and most written about Brazilian stage personality on the world scene today. How do you feel about that lofty position?

G.T.—I am very lonely and suffer just like anybody else when I turn on the news. Frustration kicks in, just like with anybody else. I don’t feel special, in fact, I don’t feel anything: all [that] I’ve done, I feel, has somehow been reduced to ashes. Don’t ask me why or how. It’s just a holocaustic feeling but, all the same, true. It’s vapor, it weighs nothing. I must reinvent myself, especially in this current world of NO values, of information overload, of shopping malls, of super-consumerism, iPods, internet, where people don’t really learn (they just copy and paste or use it for chats). This globalization has flattened Columbus’ world. It’s one with no memory or a weak one: it’s drugged, drunk, money-driven or driven by one god against another. We’re back to the Middle Ages, except that we have modern tools. It’s a horrible place where my profession doesn’t exist, really. So, all that I read about myself—I feel—I’m reading about someone who doesn’t exist; i.e., someone else or a ghost: a GHOST WRITER.

J.L.—I sense the theme of your screenplay at work. Can you give me some clues as to the movie’s plot and how it’s been coming along?

G.T.—What can I tell you about it, really, other than sending you bits and pieces of scenes or sequences, or scenes from my book (not yet published) by the same name on which this crazy pumpkin is based? Strangely enough, it is coming along: we’ve got money from the Independent Brits and the Danish (formerly known as) Dogma—they grew up seeing my plays all through the nineties when I started performing in Copenhagen: 1991 to be exact. We have DEUTSCHES money and we really don’t need that much more, or else I’ll start getting nervous about having to make a “hit,” when all I want is just to be able to experiment with the raw material and a funky story, surreal as hell, where the actual event always seems like dejà vu because, indeed, it IS being written by a Ghost Writer (unlike The Truman Show). This is an Arab/Western conflict which takes us back to ancient visions of Europe and the Founding Fathers of America. And Jihad. And the war of the Gods.

J.L.—Wow! I’m intrigued. What about the cast—any word yet on that?

G.T.—We’re casting in Turkey for a youngish Arab-looking boy, a teenager (same characters) and an older Arab man. There will be lesser or maybe even bigger names. I really don’t know… I will be one of the cameramen, but obviously not the cinematographer. They’re talking about some Italian (highly praised and awarded) and [paraphrasing Glauber Rocha’s famous statement about Cinema Novo] ALL I WANT “É UMA CAMARA NA MÃO E UMA IDÉIA NA CABEÇA” PORRA! [“…IS A CAMERA IN HAND AND AN IDEA IN THE HEAD,” DAMN IT!]

J.L.—Has the constant exposure in the press hampered you to any degree? You don’t seem intimidated or ambivalent by all the attention. How do you maintain your composure as well as your personal privacy?

G.T.—It’s impossible to have privacy when you’re having dinner and people are coming up to you constantly wanting to take a snapshot of you (with them, preferably).

J.L.—Thank you so much, Gerald, for your openness about yourself and your art.

G.T.—Thank you, Joe. ☼

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘7’ the Winner! — The Brazilian Musical Comes of Age (Part One)

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AN APPRECIATION OF MÖELLER & BOTELHO’S 7 – THE MUSICAL, ONE OF THE FINEST MUSICAL-THEATER PIECES EVER TO HIT THE BRAZILIAN STAGE

THE STORY:

7 -- The Musical (Photo: Rogerio Falcao)
7 — The Musical (Photo: Rogerio Falcao)

Amelia has lost her true love, Herculano, who left her for the arms of another woman. Bianca is the “other woman,” a girl “purer, truer, and more beautiful” than Amelia could ever be. Desperate for guidance, Amelia asks her godmother, Dona Rosa, for advice: “Go seek out the fortuneteller Dona Carmen who, they say, knows better than anyone about the afflictions of the heart.”

Besides being a clairvoyant, Dona Carmen is also a witch. She promises to bring Herculano back to Amelia in seven days. No problem, no delays. But to make her wish come true Amelia must perform seven tasks.

The first six are simple, easy, and quick. But the seventh task is the most difficult of all: “Bring me a heart that’s strong,” demands Carmen, “still young and vibrant, happy and free — a beating heart ripped from the chest of a youth who has never known love.”

Despondent and alone, Amelia leaves her home and throws herself onto the streets of Rio, among the hookers, vagrants, and other denizens of the night. Disguised as a prostitute, Amelia finds an unwilling victim and brings the beating heart back to Dona Carmen. But the clairvoyant, upon learning of its age, refuses to accept the gift: “I asked you for a young heart, one that has never known love. This one won’t do, it’s too old and worn.” Amelia is on the verge of giving up, but the task cannot be interrupted. Otherwise, a terrible curse will befall her.

Amelia tries one more time to prevail. She stops at a bordello, run by Dona Odette, an old Rio madam. There she meets a young man named Alvaro, who has come to learn about love. He spends his “first night” with Amelia. But their lives will be filled with complications: other paths begin to cross, other stories begin to intertwine, things get more and more complicated, and nothing ever comes out the way we expect them to.

Meanwhile, a mysterious old lady continues to tell the story of Snow White to her young step-daughter. It’s a story that never seems to end…

*            *            *

The above outline, which plays like a mid-season episode from the ABC-TV series Once Upon a Time, was taken from the Möeller-Botelho Website for their 2007 production of 7 – The Musical. A contemporary reworking of Snow White, with fragments of other well-known children’s stories (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty) mixed into the stew, 7 – The Musical has done for Brazilian musical theater what Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods did for Broadway: i.e., it steered the same adult course that Sondheim first took when he revitalized American musical theater by operating within a noir framework, which makes it the perfect post-Halloween treat!

In September 2012, I wrote about the gestation of this modern classic (see the link to my post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-a-brazilian-fairy-tale-musical-comes-to-the-rio-stage/), one that’s yet to reach our shores.

Be that as it may, the recent announcement in Brazil of a TV-miniseries (in seven chapters, no less) based on the award-winning show has rekindled interest in the musical’s merits. In addition to which, director and book writer Charles Möeller concluded a two-month master class in June 2013, at the Casa de Artes de Laranjeiras (House of the Arts of Laranjeiras), or CAL for short, in which a student presentation of 7 – The Musical was the featured showcase.

There’s even a sequel to their hit show in the works!

This latest article, then, includes a follow-up conversation with two of the show’s creators: Charles Möeller and musical director, lyricist, and adapter Claudio Botelho — the Batman and Robin of the Brazilian stage, Os Reis dos Musicais, the undisputed “Kings of Musical Theater” in South America’s largest country. Divided into two parts, the article concludes with a rumination on, and analysis of, the play’s music and plot (Warning to readers: Spoiler Alerts ahead!).

THE INTERVIEW:

Josmar Lopes – Welcome back, Claudio and Charles! I must confess that my initial reaction to your show was one of surprise at how good it really is. I loved Ed Motta’s music — it’s dark and gloomy, just what a “noir musical” needs. One of the melodies has a one-note theme that reminds me of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula: slow and deliberate, with lots of deep bass. There’s also a piano-keyboard arpeggio in the early going that’s similar to Sweeney Todd’s motif. This was probably due to Motta’s musical eclecticism (see my earlier interview with jazz-funk artist Ed Motta: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/meet-ed-motta-the-real-music-man-of-brazilian-musical-theater/) and to his extensive record collection.

Claudio Botelho – I assure you that “7” is totally OURS and original in every way. It’s not based on any existing work, novel, or film, and it owes nothing to other authors. It’s a work that took several years to complete, constructed in a manner that’s not been tried before, by our starting out with nothing but the music and around it building a story line with lyrics and text.

Charles Möeller – Without a doubt, this is our most mature piece, one that underwent a very unusual process. I always thought it was easy to do theater, to write a scene, but with everything connected to my brand of humor. It was this way with As Malvadas (The Wicked Ones), [a show from 1997], and Cole Porter: He Never Said He Loved Me [from 2000]. 7 – The Musical went in the opposite direction. In fact, it was a treatise on envy, on beauty, and in sum — something I discovered long after — it was an exceedingly individual treatment of the Snow White story viewed from the vantage point of the stepmother. The work places the stepmother at the center of the action, and Snow White (in this case, Bianca) in the role of the villain.

'7 - The Musical' (with Alessandra Maestrini)
7 – The Musical  with Alessandra Maestrini (moellerbotelho.com.br)

Josmar Lopes – In that respect, your play is as good as, if not better than, an opera! Arias, duets, trios, choruses, dance — it’s a fabulous, fabulous showpiece, and you guys should be congratulated for having written it. It’s not what I would call a “family-type” show, but there are lots of folks out there who simply love The Addams Family or The Nightmare Before Christmas and other dark-themed works. There’s always an audience for the macabre, especially around Halloween, so that shouldn’t be a hindrance. Given time, it can easily “catch on.” And it’s certainly not your typical Brazilian musical.

Claudio Botelho – “7” is about love and revenge, but also about black magic and the way some Brazilians deal with their romantic issues. But I’m sure none of the above makes it an obvious “Brazilian” musical. “7” is Brazilian in its essence, in that it’s a fairy tale that takes place in a phantasmagorical Rio de Janeiro. It talks about things that we Brazilians understand well, [things] such as aunts, godmothers, neighbors, novenas, powerful curses, prayers, voodoo, bordellos, old prostitutes, etc., without our having to fill up the stage with mulatas. I’m ashamed of not being very modest about this show, but I have the feeling that something really new and interesting can be satisfying for any audience, whether they be Brazilian or foreign.

Josmar Lopes – Where did these ideas originate? And what is the significance of the numerical title?

Charles Möeller – Why is the play called “7”? Because of the wicked witch’s seven requests and because the whole symbolism of the Brothers Grimm is based on the number “7” — seven dwarfs, seven hills, seven brothers, a mirror broken in seven places, seven years of bad luck, etc. In a certain way, concealed or not, all this is in the play; after all, the Grimm Brothers’ stories were based on German folklore, which is rich in all these myths. My family is German and I grew up listening to these stories. The strangest thing of all is that these tales are emasculation stories with relation to women. The stepmother is bad because she’s beautiful and powerful, and she’ll be punished with ugliness and old age. Why do women, when they reach old age, lose whatever value they had in youth? A king can get fat because he’s rich and powerful, but not his wife, who goes from being a princess to being a witch. The social mind-set contained in these stories is impressively retrograde. It was my immersion in all these tales, thinking long and hard about them, together with my fascination for the suburban universe created by playwright Nelson Rodrigues [who was a cousin of my father’s], that I wrote 7 – The Musical.

7 Curses (arteview.com.br)
7 Curses, 7 Wishes (arteview.com.br)

Claudio Botelho – I would add that because of the way we built the show around the personalities of our unconventional cast — Zezé Motta (Dona Carmen), Rogéria (Dona Odette), Eliana Pittman (Dona Rosa), Ida Gomes (Old Stepmother), and Tatih Köhler (Clara); Alessandra Maestrini, the Fernanda Montenegro of musical theater, as Amelia; Bianca, magisterially portrayed by Alessandra Verney — our biggest challenge was to create a Brazilian musical, but without samba, without mulatas, without Carnival, and without oba-oba. This actually conspired against us, because people accused [our show] of being much too somber.

Josmar Lopes – It certainly looks that way, at least on DVD. That is odd, considering the locale is supposed to be “Marvelous City” Rio.

Charles Möeller – Although the play takes place in Rio de Janeiro, there’s not one ray of sunshine to be seen. It even snows there! And with Ed Motta’s music, very individual in timbre, people just sat there half in shock. We were insistent and, slowly but surely, we conquered the public.

Josmar Lopes – How did you find working with such a fabulous cast?

Charles Möeller – It was fascinating writing characters for these great actresses and put into practice all that we’ve learned through the years. And “7” was our cauldron of incantations, our laboratory, our Frankenstein monster, but with a happy ending.

Josmar Lopes – It still amazes me that Motta was able to compose such strikingly modern-sounding music, while at the same time look backward at older styles. There are elements of Orff’s Carmina burana in his melodies, as well as evidence of Ennio Morricone’s harmonica theme from Once Upon a Time in the West — speeded up, of course — in the number, “O coração no bosque” (“The Heart in the Forest”), that opens the second act, which was cut from the production in São Paulo.

Claudio Botelho – I also liked the “Heart in the Forest” scene. It was a song without lyrics (for voices and melody only) that Ed Motta placed in one of his CD retrospectives that I “appropriated” for our show. But we thought it wasn’t fully realized, so we cut the scene instead. It was supposed to have been a number in which the “seven dwarfs” (the seven young men) are skating on the ice when suddenly they find a woman [Bianca] frozen in the water under their feet. Although the scene was cut for the São Paulo run, the idea stuck and perhaps we can resurrect it in our next production of the play.

Josmar Lopes – That’s no different from what the great opera composers used to do, Mozart included: they would write scenes and arias for their favorite singers, then add or subtract numbers for other theaters or when other singers took over the roles. Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, for instance, is a good example: he has two difficult but very different airs, both written at different times and for different singers. In Mozart’s day, only one of them was sung. But today, most tenors sing both “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro” because the role is so short that, what the heck, they wind up singing the two arias anyway.

Charles Möeller – The fact that we closed Act I with Amelia’s ear-shattering scream, upon her learning the tragic fate that awaited her — whereby she is destined to kill the young man Alvaro, the person she most adored — became part of the jigsaw puzzle that resulted in the audience asking itself the question, “What’s all this about?” After the intermission, we had to immediately clear up the issue we raised before, not add to the confusion. We needed to go back to the point of departure. That was the main problem for us. This is why we decided to cut the scene.

Finale to Act I (arteview.com.br)
Finale to Act I (arteview.com.br)

Josmar Lopes – There was another cut mentioned in your show, the “Scene of the Baby.”

Claudio Botelho – To tell you the truth, this scene is extremely important. [It] explains the original situation of Amelia, who was abandoned by her mother and who, in the end, takes Clara into her bosom as her own daughter, so the circle can never be closed for her.

Josmar Lopes – Why was the scene cut if it was so important?

Claudio Botelho – The scene is very difficult, in that the three stars, Zezé Motta, Rogéria, and Eliana Pittman, all have to act about 20 years younger, to physically attempt to be 20 years younger; in other words, to be totally different from their older selves earlier on. Unfortunately, in the middle of rehearsals we realized it would be too demanding for them, so we decided to drop the scene. I kept the scene in the print version I sent you, because I felt it gave the song about the baby (“Foi um bebê que bateu na minha porta” – “A Little Babe Came Knocking at My Doorstep”) a better explanation for what came before with the scene intact than without it. With that scene fully restored (with the three older actresses), the baby song becomes a trio. It’s also a funny scene, with some interesting bits for the performers.

Josmar Lopes – It’s a funny scene, all right, but without it there’s a huge gap in continuity and the act feels like it could use more music.

Claudio Botelho – I see no problem in including more music in Act II. And I also feel you are right in your perception that there is a hole [there], which comes from the above cut. If we return to our original concept, the scene becomes fuller and denser, and the play gains immeasurably from it.

Josmar Lopes – What did the critics and reviewers have to say about your play?

Herculano and Bianca (alessandraverney.com.br)
Herculano and Bianca (alessandraverney.com.br)

Claudio Botelho – The critics were unanimous in placing 7 – The Musical as a watershed event in the category of dramaturgy in Brazil. The noted theater critic for O Globo, Barbara Heliodora, expressed some reservations about the music, but she praised the qualities of the show quite highly.

Josmar Lopes – Indeed she did. I translated her review from your Website into English, along with several others. They’ll appear in Part Two as a continuation of this article. Speaking of continuations, I hear you and Charles are working on a sequel to “7.” Does it have a name?

Claudio Botelho – We call it Veronica or 13. I’m doing the lyrics and music. Charles is writing the book.

Charles Möeller – “7” is the first part of a trilogy. Veronica or 13 is not exactly a sequel, it’s more of a spinoff, but from the same Nelson Rodrigues-type universe that I find so fascinating. It takes place in the 1950s, in a dark and somber Rio…

Josmar Lopes – Boy, does that sound familiar! What’s the story about?

Charles Möeller – On the night before her wedding to Pedro, Laura discovers she’s fallen in love with his brother, Frederico, and so she gets involved with a murder plot. It’s a story of twists-and-turns involving deaths and curses, revenge killings and declarations of love, ghosts and phantoms and an unsolved family mystery! A game of love and ruin, which is why the number 13 turns up, a merry-go-round of violent passions: Pedro who loves Laura, who loves Frederico, who loves Veronica, who loves Pedro, Frederico and Laura, who is loved by Leticia… And from there it takes off!

Josmar Lopes – Wow, it’s “7” times “7” on steroids! How do you go about putting all these story elements together in a coherent pattern?

Claudio Botelho – First, we write the play as if there wasn’t any music at all, and then we begin to deconstruct the piece in order to transform it into a musical. Our process is to write a “bible” of sorts (Charles is the one who starts it off) so later we can trim the “fat” and leave only what’s essential…

Charles Möeller – It’s funny, but “7” is the show we’re most proud of — the show that won the most awards, that gave us the most artistic success, but it’s also the show that made the least money.

Josmar Lopes – That’s showbiz! Tell me about your master class, the one you taught at CAL (Casa de Artes de Laranjeiras) for two months, and your students’ performance of “7.”

Charles Möeller – Three years ago we started talking to CAL about conducting a master class or a workshop, or giving a lecture — in either case, a discussion that centered around musicals, to demystify their glamour, and to show people that we’re more like worker ants than lazy grasshoppers.

Josmar Lopes – I like the analogy to A Bug’s Life.

"Dance Around the Dead Man" (moellerbotelho.com.br)
“Dance Around the Dead Man” (moellerbotelho.com.br)

Charles Möeller – At first, I resisted doing the course. It would be two months of work, eight weeks in all — the same time period I use to rehearse a play. Claudio registered my name without consulting me. This would be the only vacation we’d have after ten years of work. My first reaction was to have a stroke! Then I said, “Okay, let’s go for it!” I had an idea that I wanted to try: to go through the real-life process of putting together a production of 7 – The Musical in eight weeks! I mean, it would be eight weeks of two classes per week: 16 four-hour rehearsals with auditions and practice in staging, with commentary as well as discussions about my working method! I told them everything, or almost everything, that I knew; and I heard a lot about what I didn’t know. It was two months that flew by, and believe it or not: we STAGED “7” complete, with some minor cuts and adaptations, and with an incredible cast!

Josmar Lopes – You must’ve been very proud of your pupils!

Charles Möeller – The night before the show, I was so uplifted that I was speechless. On the last day I saw that everyone had given everything they had, that qualitative leap I always expect from my casts! They shined, all of them, and were uplifted in kind, so much so that “7” came out as never before! The presentation of “7” in CAL was one of the best things I have ever done, because it was a blood pact, a magic spell that came to life.

Josmar Lopes – And with plans for an upcoming TV-miniseries still to come, let’s hope the spell lasts! But for now, what a wonderful way to end our interview: with a happy ending! Thank you, Charles and Claudio, for your time.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Pedaço de Mim’ (‘A Little Slice of Me’): Chico Buarque’s ‘Ópera do Malandro’ & Other Stage Works Prove that Musical Crime Does Pay

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A new Brazilian stage production, entitled All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in Ninety Minutes, is set to debut in January 2014, just in time for Chico’s 70th birthday. The musical, which features songs and numbers from the celebrated singer, songwriter, author, and playwright’s stage and screen output, will be presented in Rio de Janeiro by the award-winning team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.

chico-vejaThe new musical will follow the same pattern as Möeller-Botelho’s previous productions, Beatles in the Sky with Diamonds and Milton Nascimento – Nothing Will Be As It Was: that is, a musical revue without text or dialogue, where each number (or potpourri of songs) links the various episodes of an artist’s career together.

“We prefer to show off the work instead of the author, that’s really what matters,” said musical director Claudio Botelho. “I detest those kinds of biographical shows,” he added, “where the artist is on his deathbed, and then gets up to relive his past accomplishments.” The revue, which highlights Chico’s songwriting skills and craftsmanship, will be small in format, with only eight actors in attendance.

This is similar to an arrangement Möeller and Botelho had prepared, back in 2006, of the singer’s Ópera do Malandro, in a stripped-down show they retitled Ópera do Malandro in Concert. A more compact version of the original play, Malandro in Concert showcased all of the work’s songs, which were interspersed with bits of dialogue used, primarily, to connect the musical numbers and inform the public of the plot.

Playing to the Crowd

By way of clarification, the play known as Ópera do Malandro, or “The Street Hustler’s Opera,” Chico Buarque’s carioca twist on Brecht-Weill’s Threepenny Opera and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, is set in a Rio de Janeiro of the 1940s, the heyday of strongman Gétulio Vargas’ power and influence.

As such, it’s a typically Brazilian piece – and quite a controversial one at that. I devoted several blog posts to the background of, and influences on, this groundbreaking work, which premiered back in 1978 during Brazil’s military dictatorship years (see the link, “Chico Buarque’s Modern Street Opera”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/chico-buarques-modern-street-opera-the-influences-on-opera-do-malandro/).

Revived in Rio, after a long hiatus, in 2003 by Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the play’s songs are a mishmash of old and new styles – from samba, tango, and pop, to a riotous pastiche of the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen, the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, and other operatic airs. In short, it’s a stand-alone stage spectacular that’s pretty-much in the popular vein.

In case you haven’t heard, a malandro is a Brazilian version of “Goodfellas,” a streetwise con man who makes his living by strictly unlawful means. For the most part, the plot of Malandro follows the same contours as that of Threepenny Opera, but with some notable exceptions. (See “What’s It All About, Max Overseas?” for a detailed overview of the story – https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/opera-do-malandro-the-street-hustlers-opera-whats-it-all-about-max-overseas/)

There was even a foreign-film version, directed in 1986 by the Mozambique-born Ruy Guerra, one of those Cinema Novo auteurs of days gone by, whose plot was drastically altered for the big screen and, as a result, does not compare favorably to the original.

The More We Talk, the More We Learn

A ninety-minute retrospective of Chico’s stage and film work sounds particularly enticing to the Brazilian singer’s many admirers. But just how such a show could possibly do justice to his extensive song product, and in the relatively brief run-time allotted to it, is a logistical nightmare most producer-directors would rather pass up. Not the Möeller-Botelho team. For them, it’s all in a day’s work: “Another opening, another show,” as Cole Porter would say.

A while back, I had the distinct pleasure of discussing Ópera do Malandro, as well as other aspects of the production, with musical director and adapter, Claudio Botelho, and his partner, director Charles Möeller. In addition to which, I consulted Brazilian journalist Tania Carvalho’s excellent coffee-table volume, Charles Möeller e Claudio Botelho: Os Reis dos Musicais – “The Kings of Musical Theater” (Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2009), for additional insights into their mind-set and methodology.

REIS_MUSICAIS_CAPA_arrumada.inddIn view of the challenges they experienced in reviving this long dormant show (among numerous other productions), what were the attractions it held for Möeller and Botelho at the time? In our talk we covered the genesis of their version of Malandro, which placed added emphasis on Chico’s incomparable songs and characters, and less on the political climate of the play’s premiere:

Josmar Lopes – It’s been ten years since you and Charles revived Ópera do Malandro. What can you tell me about your version? How did it differ from the original?

Claudio Botelho – We rewrote many of the scenes in order to make the music more combined with the dialogue. The original book follows the Brecht-Weill concept, where the dialogue is separated from the songs, [with the] songs usually coming at the end of each scene. We mixed music with dialogue at many points and cut out about 40 percent of the dialogue in order to have more musical numbers (including those from the 1986 movie version). We also created Ópera do Malandro in Concert in 2006, which has practically no dialogue but still tells the story with only the songs. This version includes a total of about 25 numbers.

Josmar Lopes – Who wrote the original text and numbers, and how did you and Charles get involved with the play?

Claudio Botelho – The author of the book, music, and lyrics is Chico Buarque. The show was originally produced in 1978, as it’s been published in a book, our main source to start… We were asked in 2003 to re-inaugurate the old Carlos Gomes Theater on Praça Tiradentes, which hadn’t been used or seen an orchestra or musical play occupy its space since the 1960s. Our first thought was to do Ópera do Malandro, which we had been wanting to stage for the longest time… We asked Chico directly [if we could] make a new production, and he authorized us to make any changes we needed and also include any song that he wrote for the movie version. This was discussed in a long lunch with him, Charles, and me. He only asked to see one rehearsal prior to the opening.

Josmar Lopes –Tell me a little about your specific version.

Claudio Botelho – Our version is an adaptation of his original, plus five songs from the movie version, and also a new version of the book (which was originally about four hours long!). We made many cuts in the dialogue and created new introductions (i.e., spoken lines) for most of the musical numbers, as well as we included spoken lines in between the chorus of some songs… Let’s say it was a mix of everything that Chico had written for Malandro for the theater and for the cinema. This is what Chico watched and what he approved.

Josmar Lopes – What was his reaction?

Claudio Botelho – Two weeks before the opening, Chico attended one rehearsal and was very emotional about what he saw, [he] took pictures with the cast, and his lead producer, Vinicius França, decided to make a recording of the score with the new cast. This was how a long road [got] started.

Josmar Lopes – So how did the premiere go? Was it well received?

"Opera do Malandro" in concert
“Opera do Malandro” in concert

Charles Möeller – When we started working on the production, everyone was telling us, “You’ll never get this show to work, you’re crazy to even try, this is an historical landmark from the 1970s.” We went ahead with it anyway. The play has strong political undercurrents, which we had no idea if they would be of interest to today’s audiences, and it’s extremely verbose. That troubled me, even though I loved the story. We had a closed rehearsal for our friends three days before the premiere – and it was a total fiasco.

Claudio Botelho – When the rehearsal ended, we were told it was going to be the biggest flop in Brazilian-theater history. They used words like “catastrophe” and “disaster…” People said such horrible things – and right to our faces. Charles got so sick, he couldn’t stop throwing up. But life can be very entertaining: just two days after our friends’ dire predictions, Ópera do Malandro premiered and turned out to be the biggest hit of the season – the show was supposed to last for three months, but went on to play for a solid year! From the opening in 2003 to the last performance in 2006, it ran in both Rio and São Paulo to packed houses (sold out every single night!). We then went on tour (with the whole Brazilian cast) to Portugal. The show was a huge success in Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve in theaters of about 5,000 seats (Coliseu de Lisboa and Coliseu do Porto). Then, we went back to Portugal two other times, [but] with a different cast. The CD recording of our cast, produced by Chico’s label Biscoito Fino, was and still is a BIG HIT in the Brazilian CD market.

Josmar Lopes – I can vouch for that! It’s almost impossible to find a copy nowadays, they’re all sold out.

Charles Möeller – We became a little more “mainstream” after Ópera do Malandro debuted. Just about everyone had seen our show, Cole Porter: He Never Said He Loved Me, but it was still considered an “undergound” production, at the Arena Theater. Company was a legit Broadway outing, but more of a niche-type musical, an island in a sea of productions for the masses. But Malandro was the talk of the town. I used to walk down the street and see people dressed in T-shirts from our show. It was from that point that we took the first step in the direction of the type of show Rio de Janeiro had been unaccustomed to seeing: the type that hordes of fans would want to come back to over and over again.

Josmar Lopes – Have you considered loaning your production out to other producers or directors?

Claudio Botelho – In short: we have an adaptation, which is ours. No one can use our changes without our permission because that’s evidently our version (it’s never been put on stage by any other producer or director). But on the other hand, we can’t produce the show without asking Chico’s permission, again because he’s the original author of the most precious material: the songs.

Charles MöellerMalandro gave audiences a great deal of pleasure, but for us the show was very difficult to put on; it was extremely demanding, and every day we had problems. Back then, we didn’t have the kind of structure for shows that exist today. For example, an actor would lose his voice, but there were no understudies to take over for him. Many times we had to rehearse someone at the last minute; the revolving stage platform would break down and needed to be fixed before that night’s performance. It was a never-ending cycle we had no way of preparing for. It was only in Portugal that we were able to take control of the situation and understand the dimensions of what we were doing.

Josmar Lopes – With Brazil soon coming into the world’s focus, especially with the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament just around the corner, and the Summer Olympic Games approaching in 2016, have either of you given any thought to reviving Malandro again – possibly for the Broadway stage? If so, what changes would you anticipate making to your version?

Claudio Botelho – The thing is: we’re dealing with the Brazil of 1978 and 2003, not the Brazil we have now, where musical theater has grown to a much more professional status and structure… The original staging cost $900,000 reais [at today’s exchange rate, that’s half a million dollars]. Everything was being done for the first time. Sound, scenery, lighting, no one had done that size musical before (with the exception of Company, which had a cast of fourteen). Today, that staging would be unacceptable from a technical standpoint… That said, I think that Ópera do Malandro is a great opportunity to have Chico Buarque’s songs introduced to American audiences. He’s an idol in many countries in Europe, especially in France, and his songs from Malandro are no doubt his best work ever. We have all the orchestrations created for OUR VERSION. That’s really our material and belongs to an agreement between us and our musical arranger – Liliane Secco – and we have all the musical materials (instrumentation for twelve musicians, etc.). But we also have all the vocal score of our version written and printed.

Josmar Lopes – Have you anticipated any unforeseen situations, of the type that Charles described above?

Claudio Botelho – Well, in the middle of the production I realized that the final song of the show – which is a samba adaptation of “Mack the Knife” – was not authorized by any agency. They used it here in 1978, [but] paying only the ECAD royalties. Thank God that’s the only song with a melody by Kurt Weill, [so] it can be cut from a U.S. production if that becomes an issue. Anyway, the film version’s title is Malandro (and not Ópera do Malandro) because they needed to disguise any resemblance to Threepenny Opera. So they took out the word “opera” from everything.

Josmar Lopes – Ah, o jeitinho brasileiro! A little bending of the rules, perhaps? A typical Brazilian solution to life’s problems!

Claudio Botelho – At this point, I’d like to add a footnote, if I may: that, in my humble opinion, Brazilian actors in general were not accustomed to the rigors that musical shows demanded. It could have been a holdover from the chanchadas [an early type of musical-comedy revue], and the eternal compromises one was forced to make with the improvisational nature of such shows. But the fact remains that it was difficult to hold some actors back from wanting to “outshine” the show itself. That’s how it used to be. In the same sense, the newer generation that, in the last decade or so, has gone into the theater by way of musicals, to me seems more prepared to confront the longer runs these shows require without trying to be makeshift “co-authors.”

Charles Möeller – There’s this mistaken notion with actors who feel that, to keep their art alive, one constantly needs to invent some bit of stage business. The ones in charge of carrying out that vision are us, not the actors. I feel that the actor’s vision and talent can remain vibrant in the art of repetition, which is something Brazilian actors – in general – have trouble accepting during the course of a show’s run. And they hate to be admonished. But I admonish them just the same. At the end of each show I have one of my assistants go around and tell the actors what was different about their performance. There are actors who love this. But the majority hates it.

(End of Part One)

English translation by Josmar Lopes

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes (with sincere gratitude and acknowledgement to Claudio Botelho, Charles Möeller, and Tania Carvalho)

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

Another Day, Another Play: Deep ‘Throats’ and The Return of Gerald Thomas

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Gargolios (a.k.a. Throats) at SESC Vila Mariana

He’s ba-ack! No, not Arnold, the ex-Governator, and certainly not The Donald, either. But, oh yes, The Gerald – Gerald Thomas, to be exact, the bad boy of Brazilian, American and European theater, and the uncrowned “Prince of Puns.”

After a nearly nine-month long hiatus, brought on by his near mental and physical exhaustion, along with his annoyance with contemporary theater as a whole, the multi-talented (and multi-national) playwright, producer and stage director has returned to peak avant-garde form by giving “birth” to (what else?) a controversial new stage vehicle wherein his 9/11 demons are finally confronted and – it is to be hoped – exorcised for all time.

The work in question is the tantalizingly titled Throats – and what a piece of work it is! To begin with, there’s a superbly realized crucifixion scene (with, of all things, a few reverential nods to Monty Python’s irreverent Life of Brian) set in, of all places, the ruins of the World Trade Center Towers. There’s also a recreation, if that’s the right word, of the Last Supper (!), which Thomas turns into an oral and visual free-for-all; what The New York Times once referred to as “verbal hemorrhage,” and what Thomas calls meta-language, i.e., something beyond mere words.

There are hints as well of past stage triumphs, particularly in the disembodied female head resting on the supper table, a disquieting and totally unexpected allusion to his classic Empire of Half Truths, with actress Fernanda Torres, from the early 1990s.

So what does it all mean? Fresh from a six-week-long run at the Pleasance Theatre, in a secluded London suburb that can only be described as off-off-off-Broadway – about as far from Manhattan’s “Great White Way” as one could get, and from the UK’s own West End play district – here is The Great Man himself, uncensored and uncut, verbally hemorrhaging in his own inimitable fashion, to shine a lone spotlight on his latest extracurricular accomplishments.

Josmar LopesWelcome home, Gerald! Are you glad to be back in the Big Apple?

Gerald Thomas
Gerald Thomas

Gerald Thomas – Am I glad? Joe, I suffer every single day when I don’t wake up with the noise and the smell of this town. You gave me a great intro – for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Do I deserve it? I’ll tell you, there’s always reason (of some kind or another) to moan and groan. But coming home this time was particularly hard because of Ellen Stewart’s death [the late founder of La Mama Experimental Theater in Greenwich Village, who passed away in January 2011].

JL – Yes, I was so sorry to hear about her passing. It was an especially hard blow for you, I’m sure, since you two were so close. Your Blog tribute to her was very moving. In his column, New York Times’ drama critic Ben Brantley paid her a wonderful compliment for her years of devoted service to up-and-coming artists (such as yourself) and quite a few others besides.

GT I was going to come back for the service, etc., but Throats was a very demanding rehearsal process (not entirely to my satisfaction). Still, I felt that I should, could and did cry my guts out when I learned of her death; but she would have been proud of me, keeping my troops aligned and not skipping rehearsals.

Coming back to being in New York: I can sit for hours looking at the barges and boats and bigger ships, float along the East River, where I live. And being back here is almost like being born again because of U.S. politics, my prime interest. You cannot imagine the torture of being stuck with the BBC News revolving [around] the same old and utterly boring stories all day, all night, until dizziness takes over.

JLThere’s never a dull moment here, that’s for sure! You took a well-deserved break from the theater. Why did you leave it and what brought you back?

GT – I left it because I really had had enough and felt that we (the theater people) had lost ground to a generation of nerds and idiots who Blog, tweet, and text-message each other ABOUT NOTHING, while their ears are covered, insulating them from the realities of the world: them and their iPods, iPads, I-this, I-that. Why did I come back to this craft? Don’t know. Show me evidence that I did.

JL – Well, for one, your newest play Throats is ample evidence of that. What made you decide to stage it in London instead of in the Village, or in São Paulo, for that matter?

GT – London is where I learned to be an adult, it’s where I had my first child, it’s where I rented my first apartment and dealt with electricity bills, etc. It’s where I sat, for six years, and studied at the British Museum. Also, what needs to be considered in this equation is that London’s theater scene is amazingly conventional. They are politicized, they deal with Agitprop Theater, but nothing metaphorical or imagetically evocative ever had any ground to hold in London. It took Pina Bausch thirty-odd years to make it across the [English] Channel, and the same goes for [stage director] Bob Wilson. I, though, well, if my return was to be a Parsifal – like proof that I could grab the Holy Grail – then I made it as difficult as possible for myself. And now, after the closing of the play, I was proven right.

JLNevertheless, this lengthy “gestation period” did give rise to another vintage Thomas creation. This piece, Throats, has garnered its fair share of criticism, both pro and con.

Angus Brown & Maria de Lima (Gargolios)
Angus Brown & Maria de Lima (Gargolios)

GT – A fair share of criticism. Indeed. And I must confess that I like all this much ado about nothing. I mean, look at the world. Look at all the shit that’s flying around here in the U.S., with the GOP gaining terrain, with [billionaire investor] Donald Trump saying (and getting away with) outrageous claims. Still, people worry about what happens on a stage, or on a canvas, or on some sort of manifestation regarding the arts.

JLCan you tell me what your play is about? And what is the significance of the title?

GT – Now, I can tell you that Throats isn’t about anything. What does that mean? It means that the same chaos I witnessed on September 11, 2001, in the hole, i.e., the banquet in hell I witnessed, day in, day out, with firefighters, NYPD, police from all over, the Army, etc., all covered in dust and asbestos, burning in hell (all of us, burning in hell), yet trying to sit and have some sort of a meal. I was one of those who served the meals.

JL – A tragic irony, one that you deliberately touched upon in your play. It must have been a true hell on earth for anyone who was there…

GT – Is the play coherent with real events? No, of course not. I take that as a departing point and from there my mind is free to associate and all kinds of thoughts come to mind. And when they do, they need to be staged.

JL – Indeed they do. And much of your work – in fact, I’d say a great deal of it – tends to be autobiographical in nature. This one appears to be no exception. 

GT – Precisely. Throats is no exception.

JL – I read that you’re planning to take the play to Brazil. How soon will that take place?

GT – This is my biggest headache at this moment. Touring a play is a nightmare. Some countries can be more nightmarish than others.

JL – Nightmarish in what ways, Gerald?

Gerald Thomas at his writing desk
Gerald Thomas at his writing desk

GT Speaking logistically, São Paulo is quite extraordinary when it comes to organization. SESC [Serviço Social do Comércio – Business Social Service] is one of the best, best organized cultural institutions that I’ve ever been part of. But Munich is chaotic. Most of Austria is chaotic. Not to mention Argentina, one of my favorites, but where the main theaters (such as Colón, San Martin, and so on) sometimes DO NOT have electricity and all [the] lights go out during the show. It hasn’t only happened once but almost during every single tour: around ten times or more.

JL – I rather enjoyed journalist Silio Boccanera’s thought-provoking interview with you (it’s featured on your Blog). In it, he mentioned your works as having a strong affinity with those of the late, great Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues. Do you agree with that analogy?

GT – Did he say this? I’ll have to take another look at it. I liked talking to Silio. His knowledge and “twisted take” of the world is amazingly interesting. The interview was deep and took a long while (which, for TV, is amazing). The editing, as far as I can remember, is extremely well done.

But Nelson Rodrigues? I remember saying that I find Nelson’s work one of the best in drama History. I do remember that Professor David George does make that comparison in his book, The Flash and Crash Days, named after my 1991 play [starring celebrated actress Fernanda Montenegro].

JL – Have you ever considered staging any of Rodrigues’ plays?

GT – Would I like to? I tried, but the family denied me the rights. That was back in 1986. So, instead of insisting, I just decided to go and write my own piece, Eletra Com Creta (much encouraged by Philip Glass, who said: “Fuck ’em”).

JL – And that settled that. Speaking of staging, how did you find this latest incarnation of the Dry Opera Company? Was it “up to snuff” and how does it compare to the troupe from Rio and São Paulo?

GT – I’m laughing here. Cocaine addicts would ask: “Was it up to sniff?” Look, Joe, I honestly wouldn’t know how to compare companies. I mean, each one of them come with their own “master” personality and grade of professionalism.

If I go back in time and take the Danish Dogma Company, for which I wrote and directed Chief Butterknife or the Italian Grotowski Company, for which I did The Said Eyes of Karlheinz Öhl and the Great Jones Company here at La Mama, how could I possibly compare them?

I mean, I’m sick and tired of saying that Brazilians and the Polish are the best actors in the world. All of this is B.S. Each country produces marvelous actors. So, no comparisons.

JL – Getting back to Silio’s interview, there was a point near the end where you dropped to all fours and pulled a patented Thomas tantrum – all in good fun, I’m sure. With that bit, though, you completely won Silio over. In fact, you charmed the pants off him! I remember seeing you do something similar at a 2008 rehearsal in São Paulo (during Kepler the Dog, I believe). Is this another case of a frustrated actor taking out his frustrations on the observer?

GT – No frustrations, believe me. I mean, I could simply write a part for myself in all these works but choose not to. Silio made me climb a steep hill in a steep park named Primrose Hill. And climbing, breathing and trying to be intelligent all at once does not work. I was exhausted (it was the third day of being interviewed) and I thought they’d cut that scene out in the final cut. But I made Silio smile and that’s what counts.

Did I do a similar thing in Kepler? Where? Honestly, I do not remember. I do remember playing the electric guitar…

JL – You were banging your head on the wall and pounding your fists on it as well. It was a marvelous performance, better than some of the actors! And as far as the electric guitar, you were playing Led Zeppelin.

GT You’re talking about that one rehearsal you attended with your family. Well, yes. Many rehearsals turn out to be that way. But no fisting (LOL) this time.

JLYou’ve been working lately with some well known artists. I’m thinking of John Paul Jones, ex-bassist for that same rock group, Led Zeppelin. It’s been rumored you and Jones are working on – dare I say it – an opera? Tell me a little about that project.

Gerald with his electric guitar
Gerald with his electric guitar

GT – Our latest decision is to make [Swedish playwright] August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata into an opera. That was John’s idea. And I quite like the plot, the surreal craziness, etc.

JL – Didn’t Jones also do the score for Throats

GT – Yes, he did. Picked each piece of music and/or agreed with my choice and composed four new pieces, amongst which a ten-minute-long piano solo which, unfortunately, did not make it into the play in its entirety.

JLWeren’t you also working on an operatic adaptation of the life of Ernest Hemingway? And weren’t you dealing with his grandson, John Hemingway?

GT – I was, yes. I mean, years ago.

JL – Whatever happened to that venture?

GT – I still love the idea, simply because Ernest Hemingway’s life was such a fantastic representation of the (so-called) American Male! Yet, projects do get lost, get trashed or are forgotten. John (Hemingway) and I did not find a way to continue working together. It is a pity, in retrospect.

JL – Why the sudden interest in writing and/or producing-directing original operas? Is there a special place in your heart for that art form, or is it just another artistic challenge for you at this stage in your career?

GT – What else are we here for? I mean, us, the artists? If not to fast forward History or, at the very least, tell our story or a story that matches our times? Why always rely on the classics? What’s the point? What I’m telling you now hasn’t changed (in my persona): if, say, fifty years from now, they were to study our era, what will they find? A bunch of people doing Shakespeare, a bunch of people staging Wagner, and so on. That is all okay. There is – definitely – a place for that. But I don’t consider it my mission.

JLYou make a good point. Are there any plans in the near future to do anything from the standard repertoire? In other words, has Bayreuth or Salzburg come calling yet?

GT – I’ve been in touch with Bayreuth so many times… I was actually there, invited by Wolfgang Wagner, in 1988. I sat in his grandfather’s wooden chair overlooking the stage, through a weird, small wooden window.

JL – As a die-hard Wagner fan, I’m envious.

GT – Several years passed but, somehow, the projects never fit my idea of provocation and vice versa. We’re still in conversation nowadays (with the two great-granddaughters), twenty-something years later. But I seriously do not consider my role as a director all that important. As for Salzburg, I believe that Ghost Sonata will open there. Not sure.

JL – Moving on to another area, you’ve ventured recently into independent filmmaking. What has become of that project? Is it still on the back-burner or is there a chance we might see a genuine GT production on the big screen?

GT – Yes, film. I’ve been toying with the idea since forever. I mean, that group in Denmark became the so-called Dogma 95. So, in other words, I did witness and encourage, and even inspire, the birth of a film movement, which had strong ties to Rules and Regulations about how a movie had to be shot. This included a certain dogma (no pun intended) and lots of fake shots – verified years later.

But it has inspired me to work on Ghost Writer – later [changed to] Copywriter. Since film is an extremely industrial process, I’ve needed the help of people like [British director] Hugh Hudson and other filmmaking friends to tell me how important a crane shot is and a steady cam and this and that. Well, guess what happened: the script itself became a secondary thing and I deflated like a flat tire running over a bed of nails.

JL – That in itself is a very cinematic description you just gave.

GT – But still, the script is in the works and so is the funding and – in Goethe’s words – I just hope that one day this shape takes form (or vice versa).

JL – So, on the whole, was the cinematic experience all it’s cranked up to be?

GT – I don’t find it any more amusing than driving along the New Jersey Turnpike.

JL – Which is not amusing at all, I hear. Did you work with film director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) on this project?

GT – And [on] Blindness… He based a character of one of his adaptations of Slings and Arrows on me and called this character “Oswald Thomas” (a hysterical theater director who only quotes and quotes and cannot relate to humans). [It] turned out to be a good thing because it brought us close. He did look at the script, as did Braulio Mantovani (his screenwriter), and they did collaborate, yes.

JL – Did you know that his company, O2 Filmes, was also involved in the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário), and that Meirelles was its executive producer?

GT – No, I didn’t.

JL – I guess the screen world is fast becoming as insulated a place as the theater world is. Waste Land is mainly about Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz and his involvement in bettering the lives of the catadores (“garbage pickers”) of the Jardim Gramacho landfills in Rio de Janeiro. You were always much involved in social causes. I’m thinking of your years as an ambulance driver in London and, without a doubt, your heroic efforts after the 9/11 attacks. 

GT – You’re missing what is perhaps the most important “militant” period of my life, social, political and everything else: the years spent in London, in the 1970’s, working in the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. My God! What a period that was: I worked on behalf of Chilean, Argentinean and Brazilian “prisoners of conscience.” Thousands killed for having expressed themselves. A Holocaust of sorts.

JL – With your busy schedule, Gerald, where do you find the time to dedicate yourself to these activities?

G.T. on the go in Brazil
G.T. on the go in Brazil

GT – Listen, there’s always time. If one can’t “wing it” during the day, there’s the night, and if there isn’t one just has to prioritize and sometimes, often enough, those social causes are MORE important than this self-centered thing called art.

JL – There appears to be mounting interest in all things Brazilian, due in part to the country playing host to the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, as well as to its revived economy. Because of this renewed interest, would you be willing to spend more time in Brazil?

GT – No. Especially because of the events you just mentioned. If there is a thing I like about Brazil it’s its ingenuity in having become a great isolated, self-contained and completely independent nation. They seem not to need anyone: they get fed by the novellas [TV soap operas]; there is a popular culture (MPB – Brazilian popular music), which nourishes itself. Is that a virtue or a defect? I find it a virtue when a country’s identity can be so strong that they can feed off one another. Brazil’s so-called “internationalism” is nothing but banging on the exotic stereotype and I’m certainly not interested in that.

JL – Where do you consider your base of operations to be: London, New York, or somewhere in Germany?

GT – I don’t know. Good question. Actually I do know: it’s New York. I don’t really keep stuff anywhere else. It’s all here. It has always been here. Since the OpEd Illustrating days [at The New York Times] to the first Becketts, it has all been here. This is where the texts get written. Of course, I may later change them entirely or cut and polish. But it’s all here. Always has been.

JL – What needs to change in Brazil for you to move back there on a more “permanent” basis? Has the climate for the arts improved any since you’ve been away?

GT –  Gosh! You seem to insist that I go and stay in Brazil. Is that because you want me out of your way? Am I weighing too much here in N.Y. or in London? Just kidding, of course. But if you, yourself, were so keen on Brazil, you’d have gone and stayed, right? But you didn’t. It’s really not about Brazil. I could easily move to Amsterdam, but it’s not about Holland. I could… you got the idea.

I HATE being a foreigner and I simply HATE the false intimacy and false friendships that Brazilians put to you on a silver platter. That is an ingrained and intrinsic problem with that culture that I simply cannot get used to. Never will.

JLGerald, what is there on your professional horizons, now that you’ve come back in full force?

GT – Maybe today is not a good day to do my own predicting or forecasting. Maybe the air has, indeed, run out or maybe I need a break far longer than the one I got and visit places I have never been to, such as Africa, for example. I don’t know. I’m exhausted. The new book is out (Nada Prova Nada – “Nothing Proves Nothing”) and I should be jumping with joy. But I’m not. Should President Obama get reelected, I’ll promise to be a happier camper. That’s my real ONLY worry at this moment.

JLI hear you. I’m looking forward to this latest burst of activity on our part. Thanks again for sharing and good luck in all your future endeavors.

GT – It’s always a pleasure. Always.

(Author’s note: Throats was subsequently re-worked and rewritten by Gerald. Re-staged in São Paulo during the month of July 2011, at Teatro SESC Vila Mariana, he renamed his play Gargolios. The title is a mixture of Portuguese with English, specifically the words “gargoyles” and gargantas (or “throats”). It’s just like Gerald to use verbal puns at every opportunity. And since President Obama did get reelected in November 2012, we’re still waiting for that “happier camper” to materialize… and waiting… any day now…)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes