Friday, June 4, 2010

Barry the Fugue Slayer

From the outset today, I have to confess something ... potentially embarrassing.

Not the man, personally. I mean, Barry seems like a helluva fella, really. But I've never met him, so I couldn't say.

Rather, I tend to like his music. It's never -- and I do mean never -- what I would choose to play in any format; on CD, iPod, from the Web, anywhere. But I'll admit that when "Mandy," or "I Write the Songs," or "Can't Smile Without You," or, yes, even "Copacabana," comes on the Muzak in the elevator or grocery store ... well ... who has two thumbs and is singin' along?

This guy.

That stated, I decided to Google "Fugue for Tinhorns" last night and the top (sponsored) result was a gawdawful rendition by Mr. Manilow and friends. (Warning: Because of copyright restrictions, you'll only get to hear that linked song once per computer.)

The tune is from Manilow's 1991 album "Showstoppers," the artist's first to be produced with no original music. As the title suggests, all the songs are covers by Manilow of Broadway hits. ... Which I'd have initially thought could only be a good thing. But after listening to that butchering of "Fugue for Tinhorns," I don't even want to hear the rest.

I am not a music composition major. So anyone who reads this blog and happens to be one, my apologies at the outset, and feel free to correct me in the comments. But my understanding of the fugue is that it is a "point-counterpoint" sort of song, with at least two themes or voices introduced, developed (often simultaneously), and then concluded. As in the original "Fugue for Tinhorns," the opening vocal piece in the musical "Guys and Dolls," each melody frequently is played or sung simultaneously and in great contrast to the others.

So my two primary complaints about the "Showstoppers" version is that the tempo of the piece has been slowed (Really? Retarding the pace of a song about a race?) and the parts are only infrequently sung together. Most often, each of the three singers is working solo, which defeats the appeal, perhaps the structure (again, I've no Ph.D. in music theory) of the fugue itself, which is in the song's very title.

The tune did, however, spur some thinking. For when the trio's third voice broke into song in the "Showstoppers" rendition, I recognized him immediately.

The voice is that of Hinton Battle.

Battle was born an Army brat in Neubrücke, Hoppstädten, West Germany, in 1956. He premiered the role of the scarecrow in "The Wiz" on Broadway in 1975, but was told to beat it in favor of Michael Jackson for the 1978 film. His Tonys -- all for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical -- were for his roles in "Sophisticated Ladies" (1981), "The Tap Dance Kid" (1984) and as John in "Miss Saigon" (1991). He is the only man ever to win the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical on three different occasions.

But my favorite Hinton Battle role came in 2001, and on television. His own features obscured by red makeup and the hideous visage of a demon -- and wearing a really bitchin' zoot suit -- Battle absolutely slays in the role of Sweet, the villain du jour in "Once More, with Feeling," the extraordinary musical episode of Joss Whedon's long-running Fox TV series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

As Sweet, Battle's showpiece song features his dancing and singing on "What You Feel," a tune explaining how he came to be this week's terror in Sunnyvale.

What does this have to do with horse racing? Nothing, really, though it does touch (maybe grazes?) on the subject of this blog itself.

Besides, now we're partyin' ... that's what it's all about.


  1. I confess I had never heard of Mr Battle before (I'm one of those snooty "opera yes, musical no - what do you mean they're equally campy really?" persons*). I just youtubed him (if that word exists) and was initially disappointed by a rather weak performance in his rendition of "Take the A Train" (not his role) but after a couple of excerpts from "Sophisticated Ladies" (Ellington, again) and his single "Is it too late" (definitely 80s) his voice really starts growing on me.

    Thanks for an inspiring off-topic post.

    * I should probably mention that opera is far more popular and has far less of the elitist touch in Germany anyway, and especially in Dresden, where it is a large part of local pride (ask Fabio Luisi! the conductor and musical director of the Semperoper and Staatskapelle who recently quit mid-contract using a number of ridiculous excuses ultimately translating to "I can make more money in Zürich"; especially his claim that he doesn't want to get too stuck at one house did of course make perfect sense to Dresdners, who remember how catastrophic more loyalty proved to the careers of Richard Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber or Richard Wagner; Anyway: Luisi learned the hard way that by snubbing the Semperoper you suddenly get lots of hate even from locals who'd never show up at a performance themselves; being a twice-a-year-visitor, I consider myself between camps).

  2. Met him once - went to his place, we hung out. Beautiful person.


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