Through a Bass Clef, Darkly

by Lonny Smith, April Guest Blogger

“It’s not gloomy, it’s profound.”

So sayeth Henrik Egerman, the aspiring clergyman of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” which enjoyed a great production (with an especially talented Henrik played by Josh Young) this month at CenterStage in Baltimore. After seeing the show and recently watching 16 Ingmar Bergman films, including the source material for “Night Music,” I have gloominess on my mind.

Cabaret is well known as a showcase for love lost, hopes shattered, and dreams forsaken. Cry me a river in stormy weather while gazing at the stars and the moon. Lead a lush life to forget the man that got away, or just stay at home with the portrait and the rose. Throw in a comic number or a sultry tune to mix things up, and you have an act.

In the case of gloomy and profound, I must plead guilty as charged. The Yenta of DC Cabaret (a.k.a. Michael Miyazaki) once grinned after I sang “Out of Love” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goodrich – a song about the depressingly endless minutiae of breaking off a romance. He announced: “That’s a perfect opening number. Everyone will know that there’s nowhere to go but up.”

The lure of the dark side is not merely an attempt to appear sophisticated (here, I will plead “no contest”), but also an act of rebellion against forced optimism. As children, we’re told to see the glass as half full after your older brother spills most of your milk – which you are not allowed to cry over. We’re told to clean our plates because children are starving in Africa, as though our refusal to eat our spinach has greater implications for global poverty than our country’s trade policies. As adults, it doesn’t get much better as we’re told to accept deadening work because singing sad songs won’t pay the bills, or to nod as failing CEOs get golden parachutes while outsourced workers get foreclosures and termination of their unemployment benefits. When we are told to smile even as the dice are loaded against us, creative outlets are an opportunity to subvert the rules of the game. Now we get to do the telling.

This only goes so far, though. Singing our frustrations doesn’t always necessarily mean we are telling the truth. You can sing just as falsely about heartbreak as you can about falling in love. I’m reminded of a short story I wrote in college – dark and urban and sexy but well outside of my small-town experience and probably stolen from a review of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The whole thing rang completely false, and I was chided by friends who knew me better. What even they didn’t understand was that I was so deeply closeted and conflicted in my sexuality that that the thought of physical contact with someone in real life was a nonstarter – promising either hell or self betrayal. Though my story little literary merit, the page was a safe place for me to explore feelings I had no courage to act upon.

I think performing allow us to do much the same thing, freeing us to be someone else for three or four minutes. The nice guy expresses his rage without upsetting his slacking coworkers, and the perfect mother turns into Ms. Byrd without cheating on her husband. Singing songs about love that didn’t work out reminds us that there was once love, even if there isn’t now. Yearning for dreams to come true reminds us of hope, when our lives contain only the dream of making it through the day. So maybe we sing depressing songs because it reminds us of our optimism when it is lacking. Maybe we sing them because they allow us to admit that even a mostly happy life carries many moments of sadness that must be honored.

It’s been a Bergman winter for me, but I’m looking forward to spring. Sometimes, it’s good to let go of both gloominess and profundity.  On the Cabaret Yenta’s urging, I’m looking for a song of exuberance. For whatever reason, it’s a part of me I rarely show publicly, unless if you see me on Christmas morning or after an Audrey Tautou comedy….Anyway. I’m working on it, Michael. As always, a work in progress.


5 Responses to “Through a Bass Clef, Darkly”

  1. Karen Says:

    My husband and I so enjoyed this article and it made us consider why we choose some of our material. Sometimes, it is for the audience and sometimes it is much more personal. My husband was also impressed with your writing and we look forward to more articles and perspectives from you!
    Karen and Dennis 🙂

  2. Byron K. Murray Says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing. By the way, I lived part of your life 30 years ago. The good news is that much of it has worked out just fine. Before your article, I just saw you a nice guy with a fine voice, I love this added talent. More writing please.


    Byron Murray

  3. Another Great Lonny Smith Think Piece « Miyazaki Cabaret Update: DC & Beyond Says:

    […] Another Great Lonny Smith Think Piece Do check out Lonny’s third amazing essay for the DCCN blog — Through a Bass Clef, Darkly. […]

  4. Lonny Smith Says:

    Thanks to everyone for the very kind comments. I’m glad people have enjoyed these columns, they’re a challenging pleasure to write. LS

  5. Dorie Hightower Says:

    I really wish this column was formatted in a way that I could print it out–Lonny’s piece is so spot-on and I’d like to just hang it up on my wall!

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