Villa-Lobos on Broadway


by Ricardo Prado
translation by Lee Boyd

"Who remembers 'Magdalena,' the score by Heitor Villa-Lobos that was like a giant whirlwind of inspiration... or, more precisely, the most sophisticated Broadway score of our time?..." Howard Taubman, NYT Oct. 1951.

I was busy with Minas Gerais when I got the news that Jorge Amado had died, with the very moving tributes to the writer by Sergio Abranches and the masterful Villas-Boas Correa. Sergio confessed that it was Albert Camus who helped him overcome his prejudice against Jorge's work, which he had considered unserious, "not partaking of intellectuality." Villas-Boas Correa told how Jorge Amado, along with Monteiro Lobato, inspired him with the passion for a life entirely devoted to books. Both confessed to these sins of youthful passion, and my reaction was to ask myself whether any musician could arouse such powerful feelings in a child of these days. There are many names in samba or choro, many in MPB [translator's note: "MPB," pronounced "emmy-pay-bay".means "Musica Popular Brasileira" -- a much-debated body of pop music that combines slyly composed political action lyrics with modern and folkloric musical syntheses], as well as instrumental music, they're coming up all the time, even surprisingly so, one might say, optimist that I am. But in that other kind of music, symphonic or chamber music, what contemporary musician could provide a good musical initiation? Obviously I could name several among present company, the electronics wizards, who could introduce our youth to some good music, like that wild and crazy stuff made of electronically sampled and trickily recorded thumps sallying forth with their ridiculously solemn nonsense. One of these days we'll have to get Tato Taborda and Rodolfo Caesar, among others, to come have a talk with our readers.

The one name that comes to mind is not only somebody who could be what Jorge Amado was for Villas-Boas, in the field of letters, but someone who also suffered, and still suffers, from the youthful prejudice that Sergio confessed to. His name is Heitor Villa-Lobos. But which of his works makes the best introduction? Which would arouse the most definitive passion for music consisting of the more than a thousand works of Villa-Lobos? A work for guitar? A piano piece? One of those great symphonic constructions? Or a choral piece? The Choros? The Bachianas? His melodic verve or his rhythmic richness?

I decided that the best would be a work that Villa-Lobos composed as a panorama of several of his best creations, with the additional brightness of humor and his genius for working with the human voice. That work is the musical, "Magdalena." Edwin Lester and Homer Curran achieved immediate international success with their production of the Broadway musical, "Song of Norway" made up of a selection of great themes by Edward Grieg. In 1947 they decided to try for a big Latin success, and the obvious choice was Villa-Lobos, at that time acclaimed in the United States and in the whole of Europe. After many difficulties getting in touch with him and complicated negotiations with agents in Los Angeles, finally --- like a miracle"--- a contract was signed, and they began to study hundreds of scores to select the best themes: a task that soon took on impossible dimensions.

The librettists chosen were Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, who had worked on 54 films for MGM, besides the successful "Song of Norway." The plot came easily: 1912, the emerald mines on the banks of the pristine Magdalena River, deep in the Colombian jungle; the Muzo Indians work the mines, grow corn, and play a particular sport with passion: badminton! They have been converted to Christianity by Father Jose, who has built a chapel to the Madonna there, where he is assisted by the beautiful and trustworthy Maria. She is enamored of Pedro, the roughneck driver of the local bus. Padre Jose has to go away for a few days, leaving Maria in charge of the chapel and its parishoners. However, the mineworkers have decided to call a strike, causing their supervisor, Major Blanco, to go seek help from the great gourmet and bon vivant Don Alfredo Cortez de Carabana, owner of the mine, a big shot both locally and abroad, who spends his time enjoying the delights of the Paris cabarets. Carabana returns to Colombia, bringing with him another big shot, Madama Teresa, accompanied by her "friend," an astrologer named "Zoggie" Their adventures in the jungle involve pagan festivals, theft of native idols, a huge emerald necklace, and the banquet Teresa prepares for the General, who stuffs himself with the "piece de resistance'' to the point where he literally explodes.

Everybody heartily approved of the story, and a dream team for any producer of that time began to be assembled: Teresa would be interpreted by no less a personage than the Metropolitan Opera star, Irra Petina, and Dorothy Sarnoff would be Maria; John Raitt would be Pedro, and for the part of the fat and sinister General Carabana, the brilliant Hugo Haas. The unusual description Maestro Villa provided for his work --"a musical adventure in 2 acts" -- may perhaps be understood in light of the countless difficulties encountered by him and his American collaborators during its development: on the first flight to Rio, where Villa was to compose the score, one of the plane's engines caught fire soon after take-off; when they took off again 3 days later, there was another failure caused by a door not being properly shut; yet another attempt 4 days later produced a comfortable flight as far as San Juan PR, where there was another forced landing, caused by malfunctions in the air conditioning. The crew went back to announce that they'd abandoned their flight to Rio, expecting to hear curses from the composer.

But what happened felt like a miracle to them -- Villa-Lobos agreed that he and Mindinha and his rehearsal pianist Jose Brandao should immediately fly back to New York, so that he could compose "Magdalena" there. The first difficulty they needed to surmount was communication. The writers and producers only spoke English, a language in which VL only knew how to say 2 things that he liked: "vanilla ice cream" and "cowboy movies." The Frenchman from the consulate was no help at all. The second difficulty was that everybody wanted the freedom to fiddle around with Villa's melodies the way they had done with Grieg's, which the composer could absolutely not tolerate, coming out with the clincher, "Grieg is dead, and I am alive."

But the solution he came up with was another miracle: he himself would compose and orchestrate all the songs, working in conjunction with the librettists. That job was a mad scene, interrupted by a dinner with Stokowski, a concert of his works conducted by Koussevitsky, a reunion with Arthur Rubinstein; in the morning, after up to 16 hours of writing music, Villa wanted to go out and shoot pool with his buddies and Jose Brandao. But at the end of seven weeks the score was ready, and nobody could believe how so much music had been created in such a short time, or how Padre Jose, Teresa, Maria, and the General could be so marvelously characterized, charming, and original.

Villa went back to Rio, and the rehearsals began. Where themes from several Bachianas, some songs from the Guis Pratico, and the Valsa da Dor were refashioned into "Magadalena." The opening night christening took place at the Ziegfeld Theater and next day the critics acclaimed what they considered a "new path for musical theater." Villa-Lobos couldn't attend the final stage of rehearsals for the premiere because he had been diagnosed with cancer, at that time thought to be terminal. As if that weren't enough, on the evening of the first performance, while the maestro was being operated on in New York, the Musicians' Union called a nationwide strike, preventing American musicians from making recordings or having their live performances broadcast on the radio. This was the longest musicians' strike ever to take place in the United States, sorely limiting publicity for "Magdalena," in spite of its success with audiences and the critics.

Richard Rodgers considered it to be 25 years ahead of its time, and there are those who see "Magdalena's" influence in several other shows, including Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." I feel these comparisons are superfluous; it's not as if we always have to have our own qualities certified by comparison with foreign products --- that's just provincial colonialism. Still, on the other hand, how can we convey the necessity, the urgency, the privilege of displaying the quality of yet another work of Villa-Lobos's genius, how can we present Maria, Teresa, Pedro, and Carabana to this country that insists on hearing and rehearing only stagings and revivals of always the same pieces, in their rare appearances at our marbled opera houses? Am I being unfair? Look at the meager current and future programming for our major cities this year.

In 1997 I devoted a certain amount of time and effort to the attempt at putting on "Magdalena" during the 1998 season, when the work would be 50 years old. Turibio Santos, director of the Villa-Lobos Museum, immediately supported the project; Marcio Souza, resident of FUNARTE, did, too. The plan started out with discussions and negotiations with a big bank; soon after an agreement was reached, that bank was bought by a foreign bank. Other commitments demanded my time, and the enterprise was put off to await one more of those miracles which have dogged its existence.

The only extant recording, produced in 1987 at Lincoln Center by Robert Sher, is out of print. Its cast is made up of the best Broadway had to offer at the time: Judy Kaye, George Rose, Faith Esham, Kevin Gray, Charles Repole, Thomas Young, Keith Curran, Charles Damsel, and Simon Jones. The last time he met with his collaborators on "Magdalena," Villa told them," See to it that my music is heard, wherever and however possible." They enjoyed retelling their incredible stories about the difficulties of putting on Villa-Lobos's musical, and about the miracles that accompanied them, by quoting the Torah, "We don't believe in miracles. We depend on them.""Magdalena" is still absolutely unknown in Brazil, waiting for another miracle to help it fulfill its destiny of teaching many children to love music.

Ricardo Prado is a conductor.
Many thanks to Lee Boyd for her translation of this fascinating column by Ricardo Prado.