Songs For Nobodies
Richard T. Green – Talkin’ Broadway, January 27, 2020
Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2010 concert/tribute piece, Songs for Nobodies, has at least two great things going for it.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2010 concert/tribute piece, Songs for Nobodies, has at least two great things going for it at the Kranzberg Arts Center: first, the chameleonic Debby Lennon, playing five of the best-known singers of the 20th century and five awe-struck “nobodies” who each tell of encountering one diva in a private moment. And second, it also has (surprisingly) compelling stories for each of those five unknown narrators. The amount of detectable “filler” between the big moments is nigh, and we never stop wondering at the talents of Ms. Lennon as she climbs each mountain of song to pay homage to Garland, Cline, Piaf, Holiday, and Callas. The unusual hit-parade richness of one razzle-dazzle song after another is more or less balanced by her work in quiet, private moments, creating a bittersweet undertone, with the guidance of director Pamela Hunt. Ms. Lennon’s five “nobodies” give intimate meaning to fandom, and to the reciprocal darkness of standing in the shadow of greatness.
Even at just 80 minutes, it’s a many-splendored thing. The three middle impersonations are outstanding, nicely backed-up by a musical trio behind a scrim (the drummer and bassist were last-minute replacements, but seemed fine to me, led by Nicolas Valdez on a grand piano). But the interstitial bits really hold it all together. Ms. Murray-Smith’s writing uses hints of religious themes, as well as 1960s jet-set metaphors to create a psychological buffer, uplifting those who stand and wait, between selected showstoppers. Ms. Lennon, first as a deserted wife, gets to touch the hem of her goddess’s garment, to find emotional healing in a hotel powder room with Judy Garland. Next, an usher sings “Amazing Grace” for a soon-to-be-gone-too-soon Patsy Cline. And the daughter of a French resistance fighter finds celestial communion with the ghost of Édith Piaf. It’s calculated to be transcendent—and it is—in this live, all or nothing setting.
Another elegant layer of storytelling establishes the stratospheric decade of the 1960s: Garland’s voice is described as “supersonic,” Cline is about to board a Piper Cub to the undiscovered country, and Maria Callas is lured into the jet set by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The librettist gives us our money’s worth, supplying a lot of very good questions about the meaning of happiness and whether or not it even exists and an implied contemplation of the vast gulf between men and women, in and out of the torch songs. It’s just kind of a five-course banquet, where every course comes with a big fluffy dessert.
I hate to sound ambivalent about Songs for Nobodies, it’s tremendously audacious and relentlessly entertaining. And this production shows fierce commitment at every level. But mainly, it’s a star vehicle that works because Debby Lennon is so damned good. Before we meet the legendary opera diva Maria Callas we find Billie Holiday, near the end of her own life, with a 21-year-old reporter at her elbow at New York’s Three Deuces club. Like most of the other four narrators, “Too Junior” Jones develops into a bundle of nerves, but first and foremost, she is a fully realized workaday character, in this case begging to get off the fashion page at the New York Times and on to something more challenging. An interview with the addiction-prone blues singer may be just the ticket. And yet each of the hyper-focused divas seems to exist mainly as a means of escape for their very human narrators, from one inescapable trap to the next. It forces both parties into an emotionally polarized symbiosis.
After ebullient years with big bands, Billie Holiday’s became a voice of eternal despair. Very powerfully, in Ms. Lennon’s recreation, we are reminded of how the late singer would hit a seemingly “wrong” note at a key moment, to alter our consciousness and reveal a bottomless pit of sadness by surprise. Likewise, when we arrive at the evening’s next (and final) singer, and she begins her own bel canto offering, my first thought was “well, I wasn’t expecting that either!”
“That” is the sudden ringing of a crystalline opera trained voice, 180 degrees away from Holiday’s final, ruined days—though it seems more like Renée Fleming than the mysteriously “bottled” sound of Maria Callas. Callas was said to have had a “voccacca” or “fat voice” in her youth and a reedy one near the end. In Ms. Lennon’s defense, the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig once told an interviewer that Callas was, in fact, “inimitable.” Still, there is one little instance in this current tribute (in a fleeting conjunction or a gerund) in Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” where that mysterious “bottled” sound does briefly emerge. And maybe this indefatigable, modern stage decathlete, Ms. Lennon, can build on that.
It doesn’t matter though. It’s already a herculean effort, and a powerful success.