The Singers are hard at work rehearsing and polishing an amazing mix of songs from a wide variety of Broadway musicals for their annual June shows. You will be familiar with them all, and it is likely that each will evoke in you an emotional response ranging from joy and laughter to nostalgia and longing. If you stop and think about it, every song is a short story unto itself. To create a musical a theme is developed through a series of sub-plots embellished by the addition of singing and dancing. Entwined in the music dancing and dialog, audience members are transported on a journey through a time and place which is artificial but relevant because of the common elements which allow them to identify with the story that unfolds. Compare that to listening to a beautiful symphony. Sometimes the composer provides a context for the theme by naming their composition, such as The Rites of Spring or A Little Night Music, which generally provides a context which provides focus to your listening experience. However when you attend a performance of Symphony in C Major all bets are off in terms of where your mind will take you. What might generate memories of going to grandma’s house, imagining the smell of apple pie baking which can wrap you in nostalgia and warmth, the person sitting next to you could well be imagining standing on the first tee of the country club waiting to smack a drive 300 yards down the fairway.
Musical theater as we think of it today actually has roots which go as far back as the Shang dynasty in China and ancient Greece, where music and dance were included in stage comedies and dramas. Greek theaters were built into hillsides, but Romans constructed theirs as free-standing structures, some of which were enormous. Certainly the most elegant and largest theater in San Francisco is the Orpheum, which has a seating capacity of 2179. Can you imagine someone on that stage performing without a microphone? The largest theater in the ancient world was in Pompeii, which had a seating capacity of 17,000! Amazingly the performers could be heard in the highest seats without any electronic amplification! How was that possible? Roman engineers were incredibly intelligent and possessed remarkable problem-solving skills. There have been some fascinating studies done by modern engineers who have used lasers and computers to figure out how this was accomplished over 2,000 years ago. Obviously electricity had not been harnessed and there was no way to mechanically amplify sound. Instead these incredibly talented builders determined that by using curved seating, seats which sloped slightly, and different types of stone surfaces it was possible that through incredibly precise measuring and construction using carefully calculated angles that echoes, without reverberations, could transmit voices from stages which were as much as 300’ long and 60’ wide to the highest row of seats in their theaters. A staging technique in use today was utilized by both the Greeks and Romans, who utilized circular platforms with three walls which could be rotated to reveal a different room or place. They also were able to make characters ‘fly’ by using a crane with a performer suspended by wire. The Romans added the use of trap doors so characters could magically appear or disappear from stage. ln some of their theaters the Romans added underground pumping stations for aquatic shows.
In June the Singers are not going to fly nor disappear through trap doors, but we will be carrying out a musical tradition which has a history both amazing and wonderful. Our shows will be a tribute not only to Broadway but also those crafty Greeks and Romans who literally set the stage.
And now, from Ancient Rome, musical treat
Chuck Hunter (408) 205-0027