'Cabin in the Sky:' Augmented

One of the inescapable blessings of our digital interconnectedness these days is that well chosen words beget well chosen words in reply virtually instantaneously. A writer no longer writes in a vacuum; the echo is immediate. Sometimes that can be quite horrifying. Other times it is rather marvelous. In the single-voice vacuum that has always been the strong-arm reality of theatrical criticism, I really like the idea of the critiqued speaking back to the "critiquer" on the spot. The potential for dialogue is... well, theatrical -- and you can actually learn something.

Yesterday, I published a piece about Encores!' recent production of Cabin in the Sky, the legendary all-black Broadway musical created in 1940 by an all-white creative team. I knew that the subject was potentially explosive. I chose my words carefully. One of those words really touched a nerve with Jack Viertel, Encores!' indefatigable artistic director, and, as Jack very quickly (and emphatically) emailed me, may have given a wrong impression. I agree with him. So I'm back today for clarification.

The word Jack called me on was "augmented," as in (forgive me while I quote myself):
"The exploratory breadth of [Vernon] Duke's score was amplified by Jonathan Tunick's exemplary new orchestrations, but again Duke's music was not fully trusted. Encores! augmented it with a surfeit of beautifully sung, authentic, black spirituals that went on far too long and only served to obscure Vernon Duke's full Cabin in the Sky conception."

As Jack rightly points out, spirituals were always a part of Cabin in the Sky. They appear in the original script and in the original 1940 Playbill. I knew that. Now you do too.

My point was that the very extensive ("augmented") stage time given to these spirituals at Encores! obscured the original music composed for the show by Vernon Duke. I never meant to suggest that Encores! added spirituals to Vernon Duke's score.

I know it's semantics, but Encores! is too valuable an institution to even indirectly disparage in its essential mission. As Jack wrote to me: "Our mission was to present ALL of the music that was presented in the original show, which is ALWAYS our mission." That is the beauty of Encores!, and I love it for that.

Jack also objected to my use of the word "condescended," but that word is something I chose carefully, too. You can lovingly embrace something and still, with the best of intentions, condescend to it. My point (and my piece) addressed the fact that Cabin in the Sky was in so many ways compromised from its conception in a spiral of well-intentioned condescension, that it may be impossible to perform it without giving some kind of offense.

This means it took guts to tackle it. Moreover, by putting the show in the hands of an African-American director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and an African-American choreographer, Camille A. Brown, as Jack also noted, "there were more African-American people in power positions in 2016 than there were in the 1940 production."

To spend the time and the money to restore Cabin in the Sky, and attempt to right some of the wrongs of its past clearly was a labor of love for Encores!.

For that, I'd like to say, thanks.

~