The Trumpet of the Swan – Charming Readers Theatre

August 15, 2011

This is a short posting today. It’s been a while since I have been able to write. Summer school has taken its toll, and I was very happy to find a recording that made the last week bearable.

I have long been a fan of Readers Theatre – I mean true Readers Theatre, not poetry slam or rhapsodic utterances that get lost in an imposed rhythmic pattern alien to the pieces. Readers Theatre, or Oral Interpretation, has its roots in the Dithyramb of ancient Greece – this was the festival to Dionysus, the demigod who was born of Zeus’ thigh, twice. It’s one of those fun stories worth reading. The Romans took Dionysus and turned him into Bacchus, and you know the stories about him, but that is enough of that.

Modern Readers Theatre seemed to originate in the 1940’s, somewhere around 1945. Some credit a Chicago theatre troupe who wanted to do Shakespeare but did not have the cast or money for costumes and sets. Others suggest that it was with the group that called itself Readers Theatre. Inc. who presented a production of Oedipus Rex in New York City. This is immaterial for this posting too, but it makes for good fodder to liven up dull cocktail party conversation. Really, look up the Dithyramb – those Greeks knew how to party!

Readers Theatre is basically taking text that was or was not initially meant for performance and performing it. It embodies all of the various forms of theatre and gives the actors involved the challenge of performing different characters in often split-second shifts. One performer can also portray a variety of characters using off-stage focus and different focal points. It really is a great deal of fun, but first and foremost, there is a respect for the material being performed. It is acted; characters are defined; it is not merely spoken to a strident rhythm in the same manner of the rhapsodes of ancient Greece who traveled the ancient world with their various tales which were augmented by anyone with a few drachmas to spend.

What does any of this have to do with a modern day CD? Not much really, excepting that it’s a wonderful Readers Theatre production of a text written by novelist E.B. White. The piece in question is The Trumpet of the Swan, and it’s wonderful. Marsha Norman of Night Mother fame has voiced this material for a stellar cast that includes John Lithgow, James Naughton, Kathy Bates, Jesse Tyler Fergusen, Mandy Moore, and Martin Short, and the results are simply charming.

The story centers on Louie, a Trumpeter Swan who is born without a voice. Through a series of events, he is befriended by a young boy who teaches him to write on a chalkboard that is hung around his neck, and eventually, his father steals a trumpet from a nearby music store, so Louie gets his “voice.” I don’t know why this story has affected me as it has. It is gentle, positive, and reassuring in some way, and the performances are just wonderful.

Even though Lithgow is excellent as both the boy involved in helping Louie and the narrator (the boy’s older self), I find James Naughton’s commitment to the role of the father to be the most endearing. The scene in which he steals the trumpet along with the voicing of his self-recriminations for a lack of morality still make me laugh on the fifth hearing.

It’s a wonderful example of what Readers Theatre should be. This was a text that was written to be read, but Norman’s care in scripting it leaves the listener with a sense of joy that is sadly missing in today’s world.

This is all beautifully scored by Jason Robert Brown with some wonderful trumpet work by Christopher Michael Venditti. Peter and the Wolf has long been a favorite of children, but that obnoxious brat and the stupid duck are no match for the lessons being taught in this piece that contains the moral of “Be true to your dream, and you can overcome any obstacle.” I defy anyone not to smile when they listen to this recording.

This took me back to my years in college and the many performances of Readers Theatre I was in under the direction of my dear friend Dr. Annette Mazzaferri whom I miss very much. This is so beautifully simple and effective that it reminded me of how unnecessary it is to have million dollar sets and over-the-top costumes. They are not needed as long as the source material is superb, the adaptation intelligent and moving, and the performances sublime. This is a CD that will be played many times in my home. I need the reinforcement that good can happen; I teach English composition.

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