Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Taking a glass at the Grand Hotel

This fall I am going to be writing a play set in 1934, and I'm getting a jump on my research this summer. It's fun: for the next month, I'm going watch lots of early '30s movies! So, some of my comments and thoughts about that era will probably pop up here at marissabidilla for the next several months.

My project started last night with Grand Hotel (1932). Not the greatest movie--everyone's acting style clashes, though I find that interesting from a historical standpoint. Joan Crawford's sassy modern girl was my favorite. And I wondered if there was any 1930s "stand up for the little guy" social commentary involved in the plot where bookkeeper Kringelein tells off the industrial magnate.

There was a hit musical version of Grand Hotel in the early '90s and everyone talks about its showstopping number, "We'll Take a Glass Together," so I sought it out on

Wow! I think what impresses me most is that it's showstopping, but it's simple. Too many musicals use elaborate sets or costumes or acrobatic choreography, but the magic just isn't there. Next to those kinds of trying-too-hard numbers, "We'll Take a Glass Together" is practically minimalist. It has just the right elements, in just the right combination:
  • The song itself is not the greatest thing I've ever heard, but the staging turns it from a simple paean to drinking into a moment that reveals character.
  • The "rubbadub, rubbadub!" backing vocals are terrific
  • The focus is on two men, identically dressed but with very different physicalities and personalities. It's specific.
  • No elaborate sets--just a railing that functions as bar and barre. Economical!
  • No elaborate costumes for the chorus, either--maids, not showgirls
  • The choreography for the back-up dancers is mostly a very basic Charleston--it makes you want to get up and dance, rather than intimidating you--but because it's so tightly synchronized, it's impressive.
  • The back-up dancers are necessary to kick up the energy level, but they know not to distract from the lead characters in the foreground.
  • Because, most importantly, this dance is not just to entertain the audience. It's to help tell the story--to illustrate Kringelein's journey--to show his joy when he learns to let loose. And isn't storytelling what theatre is all about? "We'll Take A Glass Together" is a showstopper, sure. But it's not a spectacle.
  • Oh, and while part of me wishes the video quality were better, I also like how it makes Michael Jeter's dancing feet blur like in a "Roadrunner" cartoon. He's so happy, he's floating!

1 comment:

Dave Lahn said...

I quite enjoyed the movie! Especially Mr. Kinglein. I got just the CD of the musical, and I'm thoroughly enjoying that as well. Some very good characters, some great potential!