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The Song Remains the Same

Yes, tenor Juan Diego Flórez hit his high Cs again at yesterday’s performance of La Fille du Régiment, all 18 of them—because as he did at the premiere back in April, he immediately encored his aria. This was clearly anticipated by the crowd since Flórez had done it at the premiere, but wouldn’t it have been better to just go on with the show and let us savor with the uniqueness of the moment? Besides, isn’t this kind of behavior predictable, which isn’t meant to be a good thing in the live arts?I’m of two minds on this issue. When it comes to the live experience, I just love acts that go off script. Way off script. I love it when a rock band ignores its catalogue and focuses on unreleased material; I can appreciate when an imaginative director puts a well-known play or opera into a completely different context. I don’t want to see a band perform the exact same set list year in, year out. The thrill of discovery is without compare, and predictability is for children, not art fiends, right?

Well, not always.

About a year and a half ago, I got completely addicted to the cabaret show Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, in which Kritzer, a young musical-theater actor (currently costarring on Broadway’s A Catered Affair) recreated an act LuPone did once a week at the Chelsea boîte Les Mouches when she was in Evita. Kritzer wore the same outfit as her model, duplicated her banter and her awkward laughs, and of course her song list—though she put her own spin (which was a LuPonesque, belty one anyway) on them.

Every show was tightly scripted and thus exactly the same as the one before and the one after. And I couldn’t stop going. By the third time, my anticipation when the lights went down was ridiculously feverish even though I knew exactly what was going to happen and when. Fortunately Kritzer ended her run before my case could bloom into a full-fledged problem (though that might have gotten me booked on Oprah).

The thing is, the shows were the same and yet slightly different. On a particular night Kritzer would hit “Rainbow High” out of the park, while on another she felt more subdued; sometimes she’d kill on “Superman” and sometimes it felt just a bit rushed. There were variations, but they were teeny tiny. And us, the faithful, could pick them out.

You could have the same argument with fans who see Rent dozens of times or return to Giselle time and again: We know what we’re going to get, but I’d venture that what we cherish is not so much the familiar as the variations within the familiar. The issue of predictability then becomes one of focus: You don’t absorb the piece as a whole anymore, you pinpoint a raised eyebrow, a raspy breath intake, an incremental change in intensity—precisely the kind of element that often makes the difference between a good performance and a great one. In a world where big is supposed to be better, repetition brings performance back to its core components: the little things.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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