Sunday, January 22, 2017

Grease Is The Musical Word

Grease, as Frankie Valli informed us, is the word. It is also, among other things, the time, the place, the motion. Just at present, as in today, the time is seven this evening, the place is Palma's auditorium, and motion is, well, "Grease".

The musical is in town, as it is from time to time and in other towns. "Frozen" has been with us, the musical versions of "Tarzan" and "Peter Pan" have been doing the rounds, and more or less at any time of the year one can find Michael Jackson stepping out in a musical format, to say nothing of course of "Mamma Mia".

While Mallorca has its imported musicals, what, if anything, has Mallorca contributed to the world of musicals? Well, if you go back to the fourteenth century, you'll find that religious musical theatre provided dance at the Cathedral. It might not have been "Grease", but Grease wasn't the word back then.

The various folk dance groups, such as the cossiers and cavallets, are classified by music scholars as having been part of this musical theatre tradition, so in the case of the cavallets - an import from Barcelona - this tradition was alive from the first half of the fifteenth century. A different form of musical theatre was that of the authorities. Hence, from the fourteenth century there were the minstrels and drummers of the Sala de la Universitat in Palma, the precursor to the Ajuntament.

Much of this early music was tied up with the church. The Cathedral was, for example, to acquire its own band of minstrels, and the church pretty much held a stranglehold through the liturgical dramas that had originated in mediaeval times. What broke the mould was the emergence of what might be described as the first genuinely popular musical theatre tradition. But one uses the word "popular" advisedly.

In the seventeenth century the zarzuela appeared. This genre of operatic drama was essentially a Spanish development of "masque" theatre that had originally been developed in Italy and been transported to Spain by the early sixteenth century. The zarzuela went further than the masque in that drama was incorporated into the music, but though it is described as having embraced "popular" elements, it was a theatre for the nobility. The first performance of a zarzuela is said to have been for the royal family in 1657 at the Prado palace in Madrid. Its lyrical content was by Pedro Calderón, attributed with having invented "old zarzuela".

The zarzuela was typically a comedy. It was to breed its own in-jokes and in-fighting, such as with "La comedia nueva o el café", a work by Leandro Fernández which mocked the efforts of another author of zarazuelas. As far as Mallorca was concerned, there were no notable authors. The zarzuela nevertheless found a place in Palma for the island's nobility. And that was at La Casa de las Comedias. Opened 350 years ago, it became the Teatre Principal, and following the "Bourbonisation" of Mallorca in the early eighteenth century, the essentially Bourbon tradition of the zarzuela took hold on the island and was to eventually be Catalanised as the "sarsuela".

By the nineteenth century, though, certain names were appearing who were to have a major impact not only in Mallorca but also on the mainland. Vicenç Cuyàs i Bores, born in Palma in 1816, wrote the romantic opera "La fattucchiera". Sung in Italian, its first performance was nevertheless to be considered one of the most important events in Spanish nineteenth century opera. Another name was a contemporary of Cuyàs, Francesc Porcell i Guàrdia, whose "El trovador" carried the subtitle "the first Spanish lyrical drama".

As for something that might be described as a musical, in the tradition of Broadway or Hollywood, there was to be no such development of any great significance. The Franco years were an era when the very Spanish concept of the zarzuela found greatest expression, and when music in Mallorca began to liberate itself in the sixties: it looked to pop, to folk and the Catalan "new song".

There is now, however, a fairly flourishing scene of homegrown musicals which pop up at local auditoriums and theatres. But there's nothing that competes with the imports, the made-over versions in Spanish or Catalan or sometimes in the original English. Grease is the word, and is likely to remain the word.

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