DATE September 27, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Pianist Murray Perahia discusses his music and career
BARBARA BOGEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogev, sitting in for Terry Gross. Murray
Perahia is one of the great pianists of our time. In the London Times he was
described as `one of the piano's most lyrical contemporary poets.' His career
was launched in 1972, after winning the Leeds International Piano Competition.
He's since performed with leading orchestras around the world, and has made
many acclaimed recordings. But for about three years, he was unable to play
because of a hand injury. During this frustrating hiatus, he studied the
music of Bach. His recent recordings include Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and
keyboard concertos. He has a new recording of Chopin etudes. Terry spoke
with him last year. Before we hear their conversation, let's listen to his
new recording of Chopin. From "Opus 25" this is "Etude No. 2 in F Minor."
(Soundbite of "Etude No. 2 in F Minor")
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now what are you thinking, if anything, when you're performing and you're deep
into a piece? Are you...
Mr. MURRAY PERAHIA: I'm always involved in the line. It's very hard to
explain what the line is of a piece, especially to a non-musician, but it's
the sort of thing that keeps the thing up. You know, we as musicians have to
fight gravity, and gravity is down. And we have to keep the thing flowing and
the thing up. And I'm always involved in that aspect of things, whether it be
through rhythm or whether it be through dynamic inflection or whether it be
through sense of direction going towards a certain place and then coming away
from a certain place, anything to keep it from being grounded.
GROSS: Now forgive a real amateur's question about this. When you're
thinking about rhythm, are you ever, ever counting?
Mr. PERAHIA: Occasionally, but it's more abstract. I will think, for
instance, about long phrases and that involves rhythm. In other words, four
bars are in one breath, let's say. And it's an instinctive thing that's
almost a part of the body. It's not something that you're consciously aware
of once you've decided it.
GROSS: Now you talk about breath, but you're playing with your hands. It's
not a wind instrument. Do you still think in terms of breath?
Mr. PERAHIA: Very much.
GROSS: Because you're breathing.
Mr. PERAHIA: Very much. Because I'm singing, even if I'm not opening my
voice. I'm singing through the piano, and this involves breath and involves
even breath control, all kinds of things that are sort of imaginary, but
they're very important.
GROSS: Did you have to learn how to keep breathing in a relaxed way while
Mr. PERAHIA: I think about relaxation occasionally, most often not when I'm
performing but when I'm practicing, and to try to be aware of when I'm tensing
too much so that the music is actually being compressed and not being allowed
its full throttle. But somehow in the performances, it's not something
uppermost in my mind.
GROSS: What is uppermost in your mind? The line...
Mr. PERAHIA: The line.
GROSS: ...that you were talking about. Yeah.
Mr. PERAHIA: Yes.
GROSS: You've been recording a lot of Bach lately. Do you understand your
affinity with his music?
Mr. PERAHIA: Understand it completely, I don't. But I think that Bach is
the essence of music, that Bach, through his logic and through his
comprehensiveness, made every note follow the next so inevitably, and at the
same time with so much surprise, that he influenced the rest of music. Nobody
could compose really the same way once they had been exposed to Bach's music.
GROSS: You recently recorded the "Goldberg Variations." For listeners who
don't know the story of how Bach created it, could you give us the short
version of that story?
Mr. PERAHIA: Bach was commissioned by a count, Count Keyserlingk, to write a
piece for him that would wile away the hours that he couldn't sleep at night.
And this would be played to him by one of Bach's proteges, namely Goldberg.
One thing we do know was that Goldberg was an incredible harpsichordist and he
was very young. He was about 14 years old when he would have been playing
this. He died at the age of 21, and was known for being able to sight-read
anything and play everything with a nimbleness and a fleetness and also an
understanding that belied his years. So I think there's a lot of credibility
to the story because I think that rather than provide a sleeping pill, as some
people would have said this music was, which it certainly isn't, there's
nothing sleep-inducing about the "Goldberg Variations," I think it would give
him comfort, spiritual comfort, solace during let's say a troubled night
because the music speaks of joy, of radiance and certainly, towards the end,
of some kind of spiritual salvation, if you want.
GROSS: Can you choose one of the variations and discuss what's going on,
technically and emotionally?
Mr. PERAHIA: If I would choose one variation, it would probably be the 25th,
which is in the minor, and it's the longest variation. And in a way it's the
most harrowing variation because it has all these chromatic notes. And it
talks a language that, up to that point in the piece, Bach didn't talk. Up to
that point, one was amazed or awed by the wizardry of the canons and all of
the incredible virtuosity. But suddenly at this point the music becomes much,
much slower. And what I feel happens is a depiction of the Crucifixion,
something very, very disturbing and completely disturbing the whole
equilibrium of the piece. I think it takes the next few variations to
overcome this disturbance.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear that 25th Variation in Bach's "Goldberg
Variations," performed by Murray Perahia.
(Soundbite of Goldberg's 25th Variation)
GROSS: That's Murray Perahia, from his recent recording of Bach's "Goldberg
There was a period of about five years when you had to stop performing. You
had an infection in your thumb that developed into a bone spur. Why was this
so difficult to treat?
Mr. PERAHIA: Good question. I don't know. Part of the reason was that
instead of taking care of the infection, I just took two days of the
antibiotics and then, since I was fine, stopped taking them. And I think that
that was a no-no.
GROSS: So I'm wondering what it was like for you to go through a period of
several years without being able to play, since so much of your life revolves
Mr. PERAHIA: It's not even performance, you know.
GROSS: Right, exactly; just playing, in general, yeah.
Mr. PERAHIA: Just playing in general because playing, for me, is, in a way,
more fulfilling than speaking. It's an aspect of expressing myself. And it
was, in a way, to have your tongue or something cut off and not be able to
speak, really--to speak the way you wanted to speak.
GROSS: So where there other ways that you had to relate to music when you
couldn't play? Was listening satisfying?
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, that's what I did. I listened and I listened even away
from, let's say, the record player. I just listened in my mind through--to
the scores. I needed a lot of Bach. I don't know particularly why. I think
probably the spiritual solace we were talking about was very important to me.
And so I listened to a lot of Bach and I studied a lot of scores.
GROSS: What did you get from having this hiatus in which you had the time to
just study scores?
Mr. PERAHIA: In a way, with hindsight, I would say it was a great blessing
because I was able, also, to study analysis, to study counterpoint and
harmony; all of these things that, if I was practicing, I wouldn't do. And
you get a perspective of what music is about that is more important than
actually playing the instrument. You get to the essence of what music is
GROSS: Could you maybe describe a little more what you mean about that?
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, the laws of harmony and the laws of counterpoint are, for
me, essential laws in order to understand what shapes music. Why is this note
there? Why not another note? It's not only a composer's whim that puts it
there. They have to subscribe to a lot of laws of tonality; in other words,
of dissonant treatment; how you use a dissonant and when you introduce it and
how you resolve it; all these questions that are about the tensions that are
Now a chance to study this without technical preoccupations, without worrying
about your fourth finger or your fifth finger or whatever, it's a very
important opportunity because it gets you into the composer's shoes. And so,
in a way, I was very grateful to have that time off.
GROSS: When you started playing again, what music did you start with and why
did you choose that?
Mr. PERAHIA: I started with Mozart because, somehow, I was most familiar
with the Mozart, and I thought that would put less pressure on me. And so
when I had concerts to come back to, as in--February, I think, were my first
concerts--I was supposed to play the Beethoven Emperor Concerto. Instead, I
played some of the Mozart concertos.
GROSS: Did your fingers remember what to do? And I'm wondering what went out
when you started playing again; the joy of being able to play again or the
frustration of being rusty?
Mr. PERAHIA: No, actually, for some reason, I think probably because I
started very young playing the piano, the rustiness didn't last very long and
within a week or two weeks, quite amazingly, I was able to regain the
facility. It's when you start lessons very young you get a certain amount of
facility that stays with you your whole life. And therefore, I was lucky in
that way. So it wasn't the rustiness, but it was the great joy of playing
again and not taking something for granted that one took for granted one's
whole life. You always thought you could play and, suddenly, you saw that you
couldn't. And then when it came back, you were so grateful that it was just
BOGAEV: Murray Perahia, speaking with Terry Gross last spring. He has a new
CD of Chopin etudes. We'll hear more of their conversation after the break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with pianist Murray Perahia. He has a new
CD of Chopin etudes.
GROSS: You started playing piano, I believe, at the age of four.
Mr. PERAHIA: That's right.
GROSS: Was it your idea or your parents' idea to...
Mr. PERAHIA: No. It was always my idea. My parents, I think, gratefully,
did not know too much about music, though my father wanted me to pursue music.
It--he didn't know enough about it to really be a hindrance in that pursuit.
What I--what he did was he took me to the opera when I was very young; four
years old. And I loved it so much that I came back singing some of the arias
from it and so, therefore, he thought I should get a piano and work with a
neighborhood teacher. And she soon had me graduated to a bigger piano. And I
loved to improvise. I didn't like to practice so much. In fact, I don't
think I started seriously practicing until I was around 15, but I would be
improvising and sort of making arrangements of tunes that I had heard at the
opera, let's say, or other things; Spanish tunes. My father loved Spanish
music and so, therefore, I would arrange Spanish music for him. That was the
bulk of my musical activities at first. And then I started seriously with
the--a teacher. Jeanette Hayne was my principal teacher from around the age
of six till 17.
GROSS: Were you considered a prodigy, and did you have the pressures on you
that so many prodigies have?
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, I think I was considered a prodigy, but my teacher made
sure that I didn't give concerts so that I didn't have those pressures. And I
didn't give a real concert till I was 17.
GROSS: One of your mentors was Vladimir Horowitz. How did you meet him?
Mr. PERAHIA: I met him very early in my life at the age of about 18. I was
17 when I was in Marlborough, and Mr. Serkin told me that Mr. Horowitz
wanted to teach somebody and he thought that I should work with him. And so I
played to Mr. Horowitz at that age and he did want to work with me, but, as I
told him much later and as he himself surmised, I was too frightened,
actually, to study with him, so I didn't study with him at that age. But he
watched me all along; kept an eye on me. I went over to his house
And then much later in my life, towards the last four years of his life
actually--I think I was already 40--then I went to him for some coaching, I
guess, or talking about music. It was more informal than actual lessons, but
I did play for him quite a bit, and I had the enormous privilege of having him
play for me and hearing him play.
GROSS: What were you afraid of when you were a teen-ager and he offered to
work with you?
Mr. PERAHIA: I don't completely know. I think such a big personality, at
18, is a bit daunting. And there was another aspect to me at 18. I wanted to
find my own way. I wanted to know what was important for me musically. I
just felt the need to see what I needed. And I thought a personality like
Horowitz would be too difficult for me to deal with.
GROSS: Because you'd have to follow his...
Mr. PERAHIA: Yes.
GROSS: ...way and not be able to listen to your own?
Mr. PERAHIA: Yes, or I would be too daunted by it and feel too small in
comparison to it or--I don't know. It was an instinctual reaction rather than
a thought-out reaction.
GROSS: Now I read that he gave you the advice, `If you want to be more than a
virtuoso, first you have to be a virtuoso.' What did he mean by that?
Mr. PERAHIA: He saw that I hadn't played any of the virtuoso repertoire for
the piano; the Liszt, the Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, all the difficult virtuoso
pieces--that I had mainly done the classical repertoire; Mozart, Beethoven,
Haydn. And he said, `If you want to be a poet or a philosopher and play that
music, that's fine. But in order,' as he said, `to be more than a virtuoso,
first, you had to conquer all the difficulties of being a virtuoso,' which is
the piano--the possibilities of the piano and mastering them; the sounds that
a piano could give you. And he was absolutely right.
GROSS: Why had you avoided, until then, the more romantic composers?
Mr. PERAHIA: I wouldn't say romantic because I had played Schumann and
Chopin, but I would say virtuosic. Partly, it was a prejudice that I had that
the music wasn't worthy. And it's a false prejudice.
GROSS: What, that it was really flashy, showy?
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah. And that's, in a way, a false prejudice because Horowitz
is right. Until you can make that music sound convincing, then you don't have
the resources to approach the great music.
GROSS: So when you started playing Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, how did you
approach it? I mean, because if you were turned off by the more--kind of
flashy, showman aspects of it, did you...
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, I was able to...
GROSS: ...take a different route? Yeah.
Mr. PERAHIA: ...see--through Horowitz's coaching and through his
inspiration, I was able to see the excitement of color, of the emotionalism of
that music on its own level. And I could see that you couldn't just go
through the motions of playing, let's say, octaves or difficult bits
correctly, that that wouldn't have been enough; that this music had a spark of
something that you had to bring to life. And I was able to see it through his
GROSS: Why don't we listen to a 1990 recording of yours? Rachmaninoff's
Etude No. 5 in E-flat minor. Do you want to say anything about this?
Mr. PERAHIA: No. This was one of the pieces that I worked on with Horowitz,
and I must say that in that period, and probably still now, I have an
affection for the music, though I can see that it's not as developmentally
interesting as Beethoven. It doesn't have the--I don't know what the right
word is--imagination musically, but it's sincere, I think, worthy music on its
GROSS: I think it's quite beautiful.
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it?
(Soundbite of Murray Perahia playing Rachmaninoff's Etude No. 5 in E-flat
Minor for the piano)
BOGAEV: That's Murray Perahia. He has a new CD of Chopin etudes. Terry
Gross spoke with him last year. We'll hear more of their conversation in the
second half of the show.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: Coming up, in honor of the 50th anniversary of "Singin' in the
Rain," we'll talk with Stanley Donen, who co-directed and choreographed the
film. Also, we continue our conversation with pianist Murray Perahia, and
movie critic David Edelstein reviews "Igby Goes Down."
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to Terry's interview with pianist Murray Perahia. He has a new
CD of Chopin etudes. His other recent recordings include Bach's keyboard
concertos and Bach's "Goldberg Variatons." Perahia immersed himself in Bach
when a hand injury prevented him from playing. Terry spoke with Perahia last
year about his injury and about one of his mentors, Vladimir Horowitz.
GROSS: Getting back to Horowitz, you were apparently the last person to hear
him play. You were in his apartment the night before he died.
Mr. PERAHIA: I was.
GROSS: Do you remember what he was playing and what he was saying about it?
Mr. PERAHIA: Oh, very clearly. He played for me a Liszt arrangement, I
think, of a Bach chorale, "Weinen Klagen Zorghen Zagen."(ph) And then we
talked a lot about Mozart, who is a composer he loved, especially towards his
last few years. And I just remember that he was calm and that there was a lot
of wisdom I felt and that--he had a turbulent few months right before that. I
don't quite know why. He...
GROSS: What do you mean when you say `turbulent'?
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, erratic. He wanted to concertize suddenly again, but he
wasn't practicing. He wanted very much to make this last recording, which he
did, and--I don't know. I felt it was turbulent, a little chaotic, doing
things at the last minute--organizing, for instance, a recital. And he hadn't
really been working towards this recital, and it would have been about two
weeks after he had died. And suddenly, there was a calm in him that I felt
that night and that everything had gone back to, well, the Horowitz that I
knew. And so it seemed much more relaxed and I was very relieved about it.
And then suddenly he died.
GROSS: When you became close to him during the last few years of his life,
did hearing him play and hearing him talk about music affect you? Did it give
you ideas or change your direction, you know, outside of playing more of the
Mr. PERAHIA: Yes, it did. It did. And I saw what a genuine musician he was,
how motivated he was by the music; that this was not the showman that had been
depicted, let's say, on films or what one heard, that this was really a man
whose life was determined by music and who--music mattered a lot to him.
Everything in his life revolved around the music. And also, he read a lot,
too. He read a lot the letters of Mozart, the biographies--all the things
around the music as well. He was a very knowledgeable musician. And that was
a side that the public didn't know.
GROSS: Did you find it very--reassuring may or may not be the word I'm
thinking of here--to know that someone like Horowitz could, like, live a long
life and keep playing to the absolute very end?
Mr. PERAHIA: It was quite amazing, actually. But, you know, there's only one
GROSS: True. Right.
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah. It's unique--the man's energy. And it's more than
energy. The demons and the angels, he would say, inside him were something
amazing to behold.
GROSS: Were you able to see those demons and angels close up?
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: What were some of the demons?
Mr. PERAHIA: Well, they're harder to describe, but I think they're the things
that pushed him, in a way. And, for instance, I saw him once get very angry
at a recording session when he couldn't get a certain passage and start
speaking in Russian. I don't think he was saying nice things. A man--I don't
know. Turbulent would be the best word I could say.
GROSS: Do you feel that, for you, too, it's the demons as well as the angels
that drive you?
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. But for me, it's a different thing
as well. One of the things that I'm most occupied with is understanding. I
don't know whether that was the case for Horowitz. For me to understand
organically the music is the most important thing, `Why is this note there and
why is it not another note?' and this is something almost that doesn't have to
do with performance. It has to do with more abstract thought. That, for some
reason, really occupies me.
GROSS: So you think Horowitz is more intuitive...
Mr. PERAHIA: Yes.
GROSS: ...and you have a more intellectual, analytical approach.
Mr. PERAHIA: Perhaps, yes.
GROSS: Do you ever worry about memory loss and performance? And I don't mean
like Alzheimer's disease. I just mean like in the normal course of things, as
people get a little older...
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...they remember a little less.
Mr. PERAHIA: Yeah, I do a little bit, but it's not a huge problem for me.
And I would also get back to this idea of the division between what's
analytical and what is inspirational or intuitive. I don't make such a
division myself, and I think the--it's a fine line. I think that all of music
is intuitive at some level. There might be more armor in terms of
intellectual thought, but still, the choices are intuitive. They're based on
some inner compulsion that you can't completely analyze.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PERAHIA: A pleasure.
BOGAEV: Murray Perahia spoke with Terry Gross last year.
Coming up, "Singin' in the Rain" turns 50. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Stanley Donen discusses his career directing movie
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. GENE KELLY: (Singing) Do-do-do do, do do do-do-do doody...
BOGAEV: It's been 50 years since Gene Kelly first danced and sang in the
rain. In honor of the anniversary, there's a new DVD edition of "Singin' in
the Rain." Stanley Donen was the co-director and choreographer of the film.
In a moment, Donen will tell us about filming this scene.
(Soundbite of "Singin' in the Rain")
Mr. KELLY: (Singing) I'm singin' in the rain. Just singin' in the rain.
What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark up
above. The sun's in my heart and I'm ready for love. Let the stormy clouds
chase everyone from the place. Come on with the rain. I've a smile on my
face. I walk down the lane with a happy refrain, just singin', singin' in the
rain. Dancin' in the rain, da dee-ya, dee-ya da da-da-dya...
BOGAEV: Gene Kelly gave Stanley Donen his big break. Kelly chose Donen to be
his assistant in a Broadway production of "Best Food Forward." Soon after,
when they were both in Hollywood, Kelly brought the 19-year-old Donen to
Columbia Pictures to work on "Cover Girl," the movie that made Kelly a star.
Kelly and Donen went on to co-direct "On the Town," "It's Always Fair Weather"
and "Singin' in the Rain." Donen directed Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding" and
"Funny Face." Donen's other films include "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,"
"The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Charade," "Two for the Road" and
When Terry spoke with Stanley Donen in 1996, she asked him how he figured the
rain and the puddles into the choreography of his most famous production
Mr. STANLEY DONEN (Director/Choreographer): People believe these things
happen spontaneously. Certainly dance numbers are anything but spontaneous.
They're worked out in great detail over quite a long period of time. And so
we decided what he would dance, how he would dance, how quickly he would
dance, what the steps were, where he would be. We rehearsed on the street and
so on, and we said, `He'll splash in a puddle here.' Well, there had to be a
puddle there, so we had to chop out the cement, make a little hole and then it
would fill up with water, and he would splash in that puddle. And since dance
is very specific and when you do it the same way every time, you end up in the
same spot, we placed the puddles where they were necessary.
GROSS: And where did the rain come from?
Mr. DONEN: Pipes. It came from the Culver City water supply, pipes overhead
feeding the rain.
GROSS: Did you make the temperature of the water warm so that...
Mr. DONEN: It was not necessary.
GROSS: ...Gene Kelley's muscles wouldn't be a problem? You know...
Mr. DONEN: No, on the contrary, it was so hot in there...
Mr. DONEN: ...it would have been nice if the water had been cool. We were
in midsummer, and we were under black canvas. So it was in the bright
daylight. We didn't shoot it at night, in real night. And the sun beating
down on black canvas overhead with the water pouring down on it, it was like a
sauna in there.
Mr. DONEN: It would have been better to have refrigerated water in that case.
GROSS: Now you work with Gene Kelly. You also work with Fred Astaire on the
films "Royal Wedding" and "Funny Face." Now did you have a different approach
to shooting each of them since their approach to dance was different?
Mr. DONEN: Yes.
GROSS: Could you describe the difference in shooting them?
Mr. DONEN: Well, because Gene's movements are basically athletic and the
force of the movement is important to get the thrill of watching him dance,
it's harder to produce that on film because film is not able to get forceful
movement because it's only a two-dimensional medium. And you need two eyes to
see sharp, hard forward and back or sideways movement; you need three
dimensions. And, therefore, I tried to make up for that lack in the way I
photographed him, which meant trying to make it a more dynamic move by the
placement or movement of the camera, or lack of movement of the camera.
With Fred, you want to get the delicacy of the movement, so it's another way
of focusing the eye in this two-dimensional medium on his physical, you know,
GROSS: There's a dancing I want you to talk about that's very mysterious when
you see it. It's the dancing on the ceiling sequence, the sequence that your
biography is named after. This is a Fred Astaire dance number from...
Mr. DONEN: From "Royal Wedding."
GROSS: Yeah, from "Royal Wedding." So, I mean, he dances on the floor and
the walls and ceiling on this. What did you do to create that illusion?
Mr. DONEN: We had to build a room inside a wheel or a barrel, if you like,
which turned slowly and in which the camera turned with the room as well as
the lights and everything in the room; and its turning had to be so controlled
and gentle, both in timing and in movement that the things didn't shake or
didn't throw Fred Astaire around, and the camera had to be fixed to its
position so it turned exactly as the room did. And so did the lights.
Otherwise, you would see the room turning; as the lights stayed still, you'd
see shadows moving, and so on. And then the wall, if we were now going to
Fred dancing from the floor to the side wall, slowly the side wall becomes the
floor and he's actually dancing on that floor, which is now the wall of the
room. But since the camera turns with it, the camera doesn't know that the
set has moved in that sense. It doesn't see outside the room, so to the
camera, it's still the side wall and it looks like Fred has actually gone to
the side wall. And that's repeated on the ceiling, the other side and so on.
GROSS: So did the choreography have to be done in such a way as to coincide
with the turning of the room?
Mr. DONEN: Yes, and the turning of the room had to coincide with the
choreography and so on; they had to marry each other, and that could only
happen with trial and error.
GROSS: You say in your biography that the most difficult part in a film
musical is making that transition from talking into dancing or talking into
singing. And I could see how that would be the most difficult part. What are
some of the ways you've gotten around that in production numbers, to try to
make a smooth transition?
Mr. DONEN: Well, we'd try any number of ways. In the number we were just
talking about, in--"All The World To Me" is the name of the song where he
dances around the room, you hear him singing, but actually his lips aren't
moving in the beginning, so it's almost as though his singing is an
underscoring of the scene. And then after the verse of the song, he starts
theoretically singing it with his mouth. So that's one technique. There are
numbers of ways I've tried to do it. I've tried it sometimes with the
characters back to the camera. You hear them singing but you don't see them
singing. Sometimes in "Singin' in the Rain" we had a little vamp which was
written which sort of eased him from dialogue into song. The vamp ahead of
the song was written by Roger Edens. Most people are familiar with it. It
goes (singing) do-do-do do, do do do-do-do doody. That little vamp, he sings
that and that seems to bridge the moment.
GROSS: Yeah, and in "Moses Supposes" they start talking about that before...
Mr. DONEN: In "Moses Supposes" they're talking the lyric, that's right, and
then the music joins the talk. So there are, I hope, endless ways of avoiding
a catastrophe at that moment.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, what goes wrong if that transition isn't done just right?
Do you think the audience thinks it looks foolish?
Mr. DONEN: People laugh is what goes wrong. They think this is highly
unlikely. People don't sing in this situation, they think. Why are they
doing that? It seems not real, not acceptable. And it makes the audience
uncomfortable and they laugh.
GROSS: Now when you worked at MGM, or at least I think most of the time you
were at MGM, Louis B. Mayer was the head of the studio.
Mr. DONEN: Not really.
GROSS: Just part of the time?
Mr. DONEN: Well, by the time we did "Singin' in the Rain," Dore Schary was
there running the studio. Mayer was still there, but the decisions were made
by Dore Schary.
GROSS: Oh. What was Mayer like to work with?
Mr. DONEN: I knew him very slightly. He was clearly--he had a large input
into what kind of films were made. He was someone who--I think if he were
alive today, he couldn't bear it. He would have lost his mind, because he
wanted films to only be sweet and gentle and talk about mothers loving sons
and sons and daughters and family things. He loved, for example, the "Andy
Hardy" series, which showed the only kind of family life he really liked to
see. He didn't like to see, for example, women in slacks. It drove him mad.
He thought it's not feminine for a woman to wear pants. I remember there was
a great problem, as I was told, about Katharine Hepburn, who wore pants in
some MGM movies. He didn't like that. He had a lot of things which found
their way into the whole studio output. He didn't like shiny surfaces, for
some reason, on films.
GROSS: Shiny surfaces?
Mr. DONEN: Yeah, he didn't like things reflecting. So MGM films, unless you
fought very hard, had a very soft look to them. He didn't like dark shadows,
so MGM black-and-white films had filled-in light in the shadow areas. There
were all kinds of odd things.
GROSS: Did you ever want to do something that was either bleaker or where the
lighting was darker or the mood sexier than Louis B. Mayer wanted?
Mr. DONEN: Well, I think--I can't think of a specific instance, but we always
tried to make the lighting look--L.B. Mayer's idea of lighting was not--from
my point of view didn't have any dynamic quality to it. It was too bland. So
we fought to do that. But I can't give you an example of--off the top of my
GROSS: Now what was the process of fighting like? Would you go into his
office and make your case or...
Mr. DONEN: No, no. Oh, no. It was all done through--he was way above all
that. It was--these things had become law at the studio, in a funny way,
unwritten albeit. But, you know, there are all kinds of departments. The
wardrobe department said, `Mr. Mayer won't like this,' or the camera
department said, `Mr. Mayer won't like this,' or the art department, `Mr.
Mayer won't like it like that.' And you have to find a way to get around
that, whatever that might be, using the star power or your producer, or being
adamant yourself and saying, `Well, we're gonna do it like this and I don't
care what he likes,' however you got around it. But his presence physically
was not--he never confronted these issues with the people involved.
BOGAEV: Stanley Donen co-directed and co-choreographed "Singin' in the Rain."
A new 50th-anniversary DVD edition of the film has just been released.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Don't you know
everyone wants to laugh. Ha ha! My dad said, `Be an actor, my son, but be a
comical one.' They'll be standing in lines for those old honky tonk monkey
shines. Or you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite, and you could
charm the critics and have nothing to eat. Just slip on a banana peel, the
world's at your feet. Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh. Make
'em laugh, make 'em laugh. Don't you know everyone--da da da da, da da da
da, da da da da. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh,
make 'em laugh.
BOGAEV: Coming up, a review of the new movie "Igby Goes Down." This is FRESH
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Review: New film "Igby Goes Down"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
"Igby Goes Down" is a new comedy about the emotionally messy life of an
alienated teen-ager, played by Kieran Culkin. Susan Sarandon stars as his
mother. It's the debut film of writer and director Burr Steers. Film critic
David Edelstein says it's a film not to be missed.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
One of the worst things about going to American movies in the 1980s, before
the rise of independent cinema, was that studios insisted on heroes who were
likable. Studio heads would say, `I don't care about this guy. He's a jerk.
We need to see him pet a dog.' One mogul refused to greenlight the remake of
"The Fly" because he didn't think an audience would accept a hero who was also
a villain, his words. I'm delighted that this era is over, and not only
because I can relate more easily to jerks; it's that some heroes can
demonstrate their vulnerability and even their essential goodness through
anger. Jerks have to work a lot harder than nice guys.
The biggest jerk in movies right now is the hero of "Igby Goes Down." He's
also the most vulnerable. He might even be the most likable, although maybe
not if you've actually met him and he called you an idiot. In the first scene
of the movie, the teen-age Igby, who's played by Kieran Culkin, watches
stonefaced as his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, doesn't die from a dose of
poison. Then he watches with equal impassiveness when his older brother,
played by Ryan Phillippe, slips a plastic bag over her head. We don't yet
know whether they've murdered her or assisted in some kind of suicide, but in
either case, it's a scene of primal horror, a mystery to be penetrated in a
movie that's a long, grueling flashback.
Did I mention that "Igby Goes Down" is a comedy? It is. And not a flip black
comedy in which loss has no sting, but a wrenching, tumultuous, emotionally
chaotic comedy, a comedy in which grief is expressed in rage. The first-time
writer/director Burr Steers has given us a teen-age hero who knows only what
he hates. He hates his rich and narcissistic mother. It gives him pleasure
to frustrate her monumental will. He flunks out of school after school. He
runs away and hides with Manhattan Bohemians. He seems to blame her for the
insanity of his absent dad, played by Bill Pullman, who shows up in his dreams
like a wreck out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He hates his unctuous preppy
brother, an honors student at Columbia, who seems almost incestuously in
league with his mother. He hates his vastly wealthy godfather D.H., played by
Jeff Goldblum, a cold snob who takes a strange interest in his upbringing.
At a cocktail party at D.H.'s beachhouse in the Hamptons, Igby meets a young
woman he might actually like, a cool misfit named Sookie, played by Claire
Danes. The actress is all grown up here and alluringly self-contained. It's
promising, but the encounter is polluted by the arrival of Igby's brother.
(Soundbite from "Igby Goes Down")
Mr. RYAN PHILLIPPE: (As Oliver) I'm Oliver, and this is my little brother
Ms. CLAIRE DANES: (As Sookie) What kind of a name is Igby?
Mr. KIERAN CULKIN: (As Igby) It's the kind of a name that someone named
Sookie is in no position to question.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: Sookie. Sookie, where do you go to school?
Ms. DANES: Bennington(ph).
Mr. CULKIN: Ollie's majoring in neo-fascism at Columbia.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: Economics.
Mr. CULKIN: Semantics.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: What's your major?
Mr. CULKIN: Attitude?
Ms. DANES: I've gotta get back to the bar.
Mr. PHILLIPPE: That's where I'm headed.
Mr. CULKIN: Oh, catch you kids later.
EDELSTEIN: There's a long line of movies about dysfunctional kids and their
heartless mothers. The modern template is "Ordinary People." But unlike
them, "Igby Goes Down" doesn't feel like the product of psychoanalysis. Its
hero's despair hasn't been diagrammed, or his rebelliousness turned into a
metaphor. The movie hasn't been designed to make his callow narcissism seem a
state of grace, as it is in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," whatever that movie's
charms. Igby's journey is haphazard and messy. The movie is built on one
emotional dissonance after another. Kieran Culkin's face is a mask of
sneering sophistication, but we can see that it's a mask. We can even glimpse
on occasion the face of the lonely and frightened child underneath.
Igby has grown up with people who don't know how to express their love, and so
this smart mouth provokes them in lieu of asking for what he really needs. He
gets hit, too. He gets slugged a couple of times by a therapist, which shocks
him and us. He gets cuffed by a beautiful and damaged young artist, played by
Amanda Peet, at whose loft he's been hiding. He gets beaten up by his
godfather, who finds out Igby's been sleeping with his mistress. And those
are just the physical blows.
The other ones, from his mom and his sometime girlfriend, draw even more
blood. And still he goads them, needing only a response, the way this movie
goads us with its scenes that sometimes go on too long, its sudden cruelties,
its great actors who hit unpleasant notes they've never hit on screen before.
"Igby Goes Down" got a reaction from me. I squirmed. I laughed a lot. I
thought about how cursed this boy was by his enraged sense of entitlement.
And I thought I was watching the movie of the year.
BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
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Profile: Dodo Marmarosa, jazz pianist, who died earlier this month
(Soundbite of Charlie Parker Septet)
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa died earlier this month in his hometown of
Pittsburgh. He was 76.
Early in his career, Dodo Marmarosa played with Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey and
Artie Shaw. In the mid-'40s, he was part of the emerging bebop scene, playing
with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But he dropped out of the music
scene during the mid-'50s.
We're listening to the Charlie Parker Septet, with Dodo Marmarosa on piano and
recorded in 1946.
For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of Charlie Parker Septet)
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