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Daniel Menaker

Daniel Menaker

Posted: July 14, 2009 03:14 PM

The Public Theater's Presentation of "Twelfth Night"


The Public Theater's presentation of "Twelfth Night," starring Anne Hathaway and Raul Esparza, closed Monday night. It has been a resounding success, artistically and in terms of bringing publicity and support to New York's Public Theater. There can be no doubt that some people went to it not only to see but also to be seen. Tickets became hot black-market items; they are not supposed to be sold, but they were. Personages had tickets reserved for them, it's true, and there were personages in the audience every night. But many free tickets were given out in the Delacorte Theater's old-fashioned first-come-first-served-get-in-line-at-5:30-in-the-morning way. What a superbly home-grown triumph this has been!

Speaking of home-grown, the folk-rock-country-pop-Elizabethan band that supplied the music for this production, Hem, comes from Brooklyn. No review of "Twelfth Night" that I know of has failed to mention its essential contribution to the production's success. From The New York Times:

"The handsome score is written and performed by the 'symphonic folk-rock' band Hem. In addition to the songs ... there is music to add color, wit, life to almost every scene, played on a mixture of strings, percussion and woodwinds, the sound evoking a distant era without straining for period authenticity."

This completely unique aggregation of accomplished musicians has enjoyed significant recognition before now, with two or three CDs already to their name, and a "Twelfth Night" CD in the offing, but after now, it will surely enjoy even more. I've been a little surprised at the warm reception that "Twelfth Night's" music has had, because it is essentially folk music, and it has a kind of ballad and dance rusticness that seems not to sit that well with New Yorkers, generally speaking. Every now and then a bluegrass group blows into town--Alison Krauss and Union Station., Cherryholmes, Sara Watkins--and people show up to see them. But the folk tradition which was so lively and even central here, at the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard and so on in the forties and fifties and sixties long ago thinned out and lives pretty much in the city's musical margins. It is a post-"authentic" time, I guess.

What is truly astonishing to me is the city's indifference to and,often, disdain for
the musical descendant of the English and Irish and Scottish ballads and dances and airs that can be heard so clearly in Hem's sound: country music. There is no country-music radio station here. It is the most popular music in the world, according to some sources. And yet there is very little of it to be heard in these parts. When Jessica Harp--one of a duet called The Wreckers, who had a No. 1 country hit a few years back called "Leave the Pieces"--showed up at another branch of the Public Theater, Joe's Pub, last week, it was mainly, as the rail-thin singer herself said, "an industry show." And when the Country Music Awards were held in Madison Square Garden a few years back, the event had as much impact on the natives as a dental-implant conference would have had.

Ninety percent of all popular music is junk. Maybe more. But sophisticated New Yorkers, personages or otherwise, can distinguish the good from the bad and embrace the good. But not with country music, evidently. I believe we are embarrassed by it--as if to like it is to betray one's metropolitan identity. A shame, it seems to me, because at is best it is an important part of this country's popular culture.