Elephant Steps in Time
You’ve heard it said about your town or one nearby.
“If you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes, and it’ll change.”
The same standard can apply to Stanley Silverman’s music in Elephant Steps. If on the off-chance you don’t like the melody you’re hearing, wait a few seconds, and you’ll come across one you do.
For Elephant Steps – “The Fearful Radio Show” that Silverman and Richard Foreman created in 1968 – offers a most eclectic mix. You’ve heard of “the three Bs” in music? Silverman offered “the four r’s” — renaissance madrigal, ragtime, rock and raga. Add to that some gypsy sounds, electronic and ‘30s pop.
“I love music from vaudeville, burlesque, night clubs and the Catskills,” Silverman says, suggesting that they might well have made their way into Elephant Steps, too. Over the score’s sixty-five minutes, you’ll also hear the Beatles, Bernstein and Ravi Shankar referenced. There’s even a hint of African tribal music (which, when you think of it, isn’t inappropriate for a show that deals with elephants).
A melody can turn from elegant to ominous in less time than it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings. In a way, listening to Elephant Steps is like spinning a radio dial at random. “I used to listen to WQXR,” Silverman says of New York’s classical music station, “but I also listened to a Latin station that was nearby on the dial. I would switch back and forth between them. I like doing that kind of thing. So what would a show be like that did that, too, only with more ‘stations’?”
One of the most delightful songs is “You’re on the Radio.” When I suggested to Silverman that a talk show host should use it as his theme song, he tells me that someone already has: “Chris Langham in the U.K.,” he says. “I knew his father, the director Michael Langham, from Stratford, where I composed a great deal of incidental music for a number of plays.” Okay, but that doesn’t preclude some American talk show host from appropriating it. Everyone from shock-jocks to more amiable deejays should take note.
None of this panoply of music is apparent from the score’s first moments, which feature another of Silverman’s loves: atonal music. “It basically started from my experiences with such masters as Leon Kirchner and Darius Milhaud, whom I came to know in college,” he says. But after he was graduated, he didn’t have all that much opportunity to use it. While the resident composer for The Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center during its early years, he wrote incidental music for The Country Wife, Yerma, Galileo and Saint Joan. “When you do a show in the 18th century or a Restoration comedy,” Silverman says, “you do have to write for the time in which the play is set.”
This was in the late ‘60s, when he also spent time teaching at Tanglewood. “Alan Jay Lerner had given some money to develop new works,” he says. “They offered me the chance to do a show that would debut on August 7, 1968 and even get another performance or two. It was the first commission they’d made since Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.”
He found a theatrical soulmate in Richard Foreman, now known for his avant-garde Ontological-Hysteric Theater. “But this was just before Richard went in that direction. What people don’t know about Richard is that he used to write traditional three-act plays. John Guare told me that at Yale, Richard was the favorite pupil of John Gassner,” says Silverman, citing the eminent theater critic who taught playwriting at the famed New Haven university. “None of the plays got on, and I think that’s what set him on a new path.”
Even then, however, Foreman also enjoyed Dadaism, as did Silverman. “I love things like Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, and those Laurel and Hardy movies where surreal things happen,” he says. “Everyone thinks of Rodgers and Hart as fully mainstream, but let’s not forget that they wrote I Married an Angel. I’m not just referring to their having an angel show up out of nowhere. I mean that in the second act, they suddenly gave us ‘At the Roxy Music Hall,’ which has nothing to do with anything. But what a great song!”
Silverman and Foreman started working on the first of what would be more than a half-dozen works. “I wanted to walk the line between being entertaining and being thrown off the stage,” Silverman says with a smile. He had met Mike Nichols while working on The Little Foxes in 1967, so he asked him to direct, perhaps erring when describing Elephant Steps as an opera. “Mike said, ‘Opera? Who gives a damn about opera?’ When John Hirsch (the noted Canadian director) turned us down, Richard said, ‘I can direct! I did a reading of one of my plays at New Dramatists!’” And while that credit wouldn’t impress many, Silverman approved his librettist as director as well as another newcomer who’d conduct the piece: the then-unknown Michael Tilson Thomas.
“The reviews were strangely ecstatic — although,” Silverman adds, “I didn’t know it’d be reviewed by anybody, unless the Berkshire Eagle came. I was gratefully unaware that August 7 was the date for the annual meeting of the National Music Critics Association, and Tanglewood was the place.”
Music critic Theodore Strongin of the New York Times said that Elephant Steps, “in a stream of consciousness way, has form. Mr. Silverman and Mr. Foreman are courageous men. They have entered a challenging realm, and Elephant Steps is very beguiling.”
Strongin was not the work’s only fan. Years later, Silverman was shocked to learn that a murder mystery paid homage to his work. “Someone in it says to someone else, ‘Were you listening to Elephant Steps?’ For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of the book.”
But what’s the theme of Elephant Steps? “It’s about the search for spirituality and enlightenment,” Silverman says. And what‘s the plot? Silverman lets Foreman take over here: “Hartman, who is ill, is warned that he must free himself from the spiritual influence of the mysterious Reinhardt. Sneaking off to Reinhart’s house, he faints upon finding the front door locked. Seized by his enemies, they take him to a radio station, where they attempt to force a public confession over the airwaves. Hartman escapes, and back home in the safety of his kitchen, he dreams of Reinhardt. Elephant-Angels appear and lead him into the street, up a ladder to Reinhardt’s second floor window. The window begins to quiver with light, and mysteriously, Hartman is transformed.”
Doesn’t sound commercial, does it? So just as an elephant takes approximately two years to give birth, Elephant Steps took that long to get to New York. In 1970, it didn’t make Broadway or even off-Broadway, but played a small engagement at the Hunter College theater now known as the Danny Kaye Playhouse. Three more years had to pass before it made it into the recording studio, again under Michael Tilson Thomas’ baton. Silverman also expresses gratitude for legendary record producer Thomas Z. Shepard’s contributions.
Philip Steele, who played Hartman, was later in the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera, playing Joseph Buquet, the first one who claims to have seen the Phantom. (Many in the Paris Opera assumed he was having hallucinations worthy of Elephant Steps.) Also in the cast were Larry Marshall, who’d get a 1977 Tony nod for his Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, and Marilyn Sokol, who can be currently seen in Old Jews Telling Jokes.
Elephant Steps’ LP suffered the same fate of so many cast albums of vinyl days – an incorrect running order to fit everything on one side or another. Now, Silverman is happy to say, it’s in the sequence that he wrote it. “Although it’s still pretty surreal,” he says with a laugh.
Okay, let’s get surreal. Did you ever hear the old joke about a woman who while walking down the street saw a man snapping his fingers? “Why are you doing that?” she inquired. “It keeps the elephants away,” he responded. “But there are no elephants around here” she said – to which he replied, “See how well it works?”
And why did that surreal joke – one that Stanley Silverman would enjoy — come to mind? I believe that you’ll be snapping your fingers to much of Elephant Steps. It’s now available for purchase on MasterworksBroadway.com.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.