Maria Callas (1923-1977) backstage. Crop from Getty photograph.
Judy Garland (1922-1969) as Jenny Bowman in I Could Go On Singing (1963) offstage. Image crop from lobby card.

This is not a review but a set of musings on a production to which I hope to return after it opens on July 7, 2011.  I own a Dramatists Play Service version of the script of Master Class and have read it several times over the years.  The current Manhattan Theatre Club production with the luscious Tyne Daly as Callas, which I saw in a preview on Bloomsday, June 16, is my first opportunity to see this play on the stage.  I know before entering the theatre that there are several juicy parts for a few young opera singers in this cast (two women and one man).  One of those female roles led to Audra McDonald‘s first Tony Award for the 1995 original production and another went to the first Callas Zoe Caldwell. I have returned to this script over the years as providing examples of successfully meeting the challenges inherent in a one person or limited cast play based on a real person — finding the occasion, setting the stage quite literally, deciding on the role of the audience and whether or not the characters on stage will directly address the people in the seats.  All those questions.  Master Class is both a multi character play and a solo character play mashed up, for the most part successfully, into one work of theatrical art.  Most of these musings I shall reserve for a full review once the play formally opens.

Today I return again to the Maria Callas – Judy Garland connection that I began ruminating upon after viewing the 2010 Kennedy Center production of McNally’s 1989The Lisbon Traviata. (My full review here.)   A trio of plays (The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, and a new reworking of an old idea Golden Age) were produced in early 2010 as a mini McNally festival and included this very production of Master Class.  I feel I’m returning to a conversation with myself initiated all those months ago.  In that review I examine in the play’s magnificent first act the “costs and delights of intimate, invested, intense fandom as exhibited by Mendy (John Glover) and Stephen (Malcolm Gets) in Mendy’s mid 1980s Greenwich Village apartment limned floor to ceiling with opera LPs.  In this life dedicated to music and a heart dedicated to opera we feel our way to the passion for Maria Callas shared, debated, enjoyed, endured.”  I go on to draw the explicit connection, as a woman who is a passionate fan of another female performer whose fans exhibit similar tendencies.  Among Judy Garland fans, as among these Callas fans, I have observed “factoid comparing, rare recording seeking, competitively collecting”.  I have also observed among my fellow Garland fans an indulgence in “living through a life lived in passionate excess (at times) and performance excellence (some argue at all times).”  I continue my comparison:  “Both Callas and Garland were born in the 1920s (Garland in 1922, Callas in 1923) and both died young (Garland at 47 in 1969, Calls at 53 in 1977).  Both women were extolled as the greatest at what they did and changed the face of their respective art forms.  Each performed out of passion — which meant imperfect performances and performances that soared higher than experienced before or since.” During my performance of this production of The Lisbon Traviata I said out loud (quietly to myself, in my theatre seat): these men could be Garland fans.  It is precisely the same energy.

The fan’s emotional dependence upon the object of his or her affection is addressed in The Lisbon Traviata with exquisitely articulated speeches.  In my review I also mused on this, inspired by the characters and performers, especially in the first act.  “Beyond this superficial dimension of acquisitive compulsion, McNally gets at deeper emotional truths for a set of the super fans of any genre and for any artist.  Mendy says at one point ‘opera doesn’t reject me — the real world does’.  Mendy says of Callas: ‘I love her so much, everything about her — I’ll take crumbs.’  And to the real point, stated by Mendy here and lived by Stephen in Act Two: ‘This doesn’t seem like such a terrible existence with people like her to illuminate it.’  And finally, about the burgeoning cadre of Callas fans (and this is true of many Garland fans also): ‘I sometimes think we’re increasing — Maria lives on through us! Or perhaps its the reverse.'”

In the later play Master Class, McNally addresses not the fan experience of Callas’s art but the discipline, devotion, costs of living the art.  Callas is inspired to reflect, to cajole, to pontificate on these themes by three talented advanced students who present themselves to her in her master class.  And again I was struck by the resonance of her thoughts with what I know of Garland’s reflections on her own art, and resonance with dialogue articulated by one particular character in Garland’s final movie I Could Go On Singing (1963) — a singer whose successful career and devoted fans have come at some cost in her personal life. Yet the passion survives.

As context for Master Class, some dialogue from I Could Go On Singing (1963).  Jenny is balking at going on stage at the Palladium after a perceived rejection by her young son with old lover David.  David attempts to reason with her in an examining room at a local hospital (where she has been taken to have a sprained ankle addressed), to get her back to the theatre.  I choose to believe he does this because he knows that she is most content, most at rest, when she is on stage with her audience.

Jenny: Have you come to take me home?

David: No, I’ve come to take you to the theatre.

Jenny: No you haven’t! I’m not going back there. I’m not going back there ever, ever again.

David: Listen they are waiting.

Jenny: I don’t care if they’re fasting. You just give them their money back and tell them to come back next fall.

David: Jenny, it’s a sell out.

Jenny: I’m always a sell out!

David: You promised. They’re waiting, there’s George and Ida and …

Jenny: I know, I know … just let them wait! To hell with them! I can’t be spread so thin. I’m just one person. I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everyone can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.

David: Now you know that is not true, don’t you?

Jenny: Well, I’m not going to do it anymore and that’s final. I… it’s just not worth all the deaths I have to die.

David: You have a show to do tonight. You are going to do it. And I am going to see that you do.

Jenny: Do you think you can make me sing? Do you think you can? Do you think George can make me sing? Or Ida? You can get me there sure, but can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to, just for me. I sing for my own pleasure. Whenever I want. Do you understand that?

David: Yes I do understand that, just hang on to that will you, hang on.

Jenny: Well, I’ve hung on to every bit of rubbish there is to hang on to in life and I’ve thrown all the good bits away. Now can you tell me why I do that?

And ah, Master Class.  Throughout, our theatricalized Callas (as does our theatricalized Garland-as-Bowman) gives short bursts of inspired Jenny-Maria-Judy wonderment.  More of the personal pain and performance ambivalence is provided in Callas memory monologues, as conversations with men in her past, in the script of this play.  For now, the snippets here are provided primarily as advice or retorts to her students.

To student Sophie when Callas has barked an order to the hapless stage hand: “You thought that was fiery?  Wait.  just wait.  My fire comes from here, Sophie.  It’s mine.  It’s not for sale.  It’s not for me to give away.  And even if I could, I wouldn’t.  It’s who I am.”

To Sophie.  “Let it fill you up.  It’s so simple.  Listen.  It’s all there.  Who she is.  You don’t have to do anything but listen.”

To Sophie.  “Very few people can weep in song.” “Just listen.  Everything is in the music.”

To Sophie.  “Try isn’t good enough. Do. The theatre isn’t about trying.  People don’t leave their homes to watch us try.  They come to see us do.”

To Sophie (but ruminating on her own reception by critics): “The said they didn’t like my sound.  That wasn’t it.  They didn’t like my soul.  Too. What?  Too. Something.”

About 1952 live recording of Lady Macbeth’s “Letter Scene”: “They’re waiting for you to sing.  That’s who I am!  This voice.”

There is much to be made of this play and to discuss about this current MTC production.  For now, I’ll wander about in these marvelous suggestive illustrative bits of dialogue evoking two amazing performance careers, inspired by the works of a great living playwright.  To be continued.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 17, 2011)

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