SONG SPOTLIGHT: Recuerdo
Many (but not all) musicals are adaptations. Songwriting teams have found inspiration in plays, novels, film, television, comic strips and even paintings (obligatory Sondheim reference #1). The challenge that these teams face is to create original material around the existing material. It’s a necessary challenge, because those other forms don’t tell stories with song. Even in works that borrow quite heavily from the source (think My Fair Lady), the lyrics are something new entirely.
That being said, it’s another exercise altogether for a composer to set the source’s original words to music. This is the case in Carmel Dean’s musical about American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Girl Called Vincent. Unlike some musicals about historical figures that unfold rather linearly with integrated songs (Fiorello!, 1776), Dean takes a hybrid traditional-Brechtian approach, using only Millay’s poetry. While Dean says the songs are still integrated in the sense that they “comment on the action of the story, and further the plot and characters,” they are not always sung by the story’s specific characters. “Recuerdo” is one such number.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was “one of the most successful and respected poets in America.” Her popularity was equal parts talent and personality: the critic Carl Van Doren said, “Rarely since Sappho [has a woman] written as outspokenly as Millay.” The comparison to Sappho is apt; Millay was openly bisexual and very frank about her numerous romantic liaisons.
She moved to New York City after graduating from Vassar College in 1917, and her star began to rise when she published A Few Figs From Thistles: Poems and Four Sonnets in 1920, which contains the original “Recuerdo.”
“Recuerdo” is notable for being un-self-consciously romantic amongst Figs’ more cynical fare. The poem describes a night that the narrator spends with a companion, presumably a lover. The pair does rather mundane things on their night out, like eat fruit, and take multiple rides on the Staten Island Ferry (“We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry” is repeated exactly three times). Despite this excessive ordinariness, “Recuerdo,” as one reviewer puts it, “resonates with that end-of-the-night euphoria, that combination of exhaustion and absolute joy” that one experiences when spending all night with the person you adore. One can hardly argue with the second stanza’s passionate imagery: “And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold/And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.”
Speculation abounds about who inspired “Recuerdo” (the gender is never specified). Because of the Spanish title (“I remember”), many people believe the subject is Nicaraguan poet Salamón de la Selva (You can read more about this speculation here), but in the context of A Girl Named Vincent, the specific lover isn’t what matters.
As stated, none of the show’s characters sing “Recuerdo” the song. It’s rendered as a duet between a Man and a Woman, which is a striking choice on Dean’s part. “Recuerdo” the poem is about the past, it’s reminiscence–though vivid and specific, it’s ultimately passive. A duet is almost always active. It’s about two people communicating with each other in the moment. And that gives the song another interesting dimension; the poem is a one-sided account, but by having the Man and Woman trade off lines mid-measure and sing the end of each stanza together, they are united in their feelings, and I am immediately more invested in the relationship, or what their relationship represents.
“I shall have many lovers,” Millay wrote in a letter that introduces the song in the show. The real Millay believed that lovers should “sublimate their feelings by pouring them ‘into the golden vessel of great song.’” It wouldn’t make sense to see “Recuerdo” being acted literally by Vincent and whichever lover she happened to write it about. “Recuerdo” is not a manifestation of an actual relationship, but a manifestation of Millay’s ability to translate a lover’s passion into poetry.
Dean’s “Recuerdo” makes dramaturgical sense, but does it work as a song? There is an ongoing debate about lyrics and poetry, led by Uncle Stevie himself. “Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung,” he says in his preface to Finishing the Hat. He elaborates by explaining that “lyrics sort of fade into the background. They fade on the page and live on the stage when set to music.” Poetry and overly poetic lyrics, on the other hand, call attention to themselves in a way that Sondheim finds incompatible with good musical theatre. The poet Paul Muldoon argues that this is because “The poem is generally quite compatible in itself. It brings its own music with it.” It doesn’t need a composer and character to bring it to life–the poet does that all on her own.
However, given what we know about the “characters” in this number, I don’t think Sondheim could argue that lyrics are too poetic for them, especially given that Millay’s language in “Recuerdo” is straightforward and naturalistic (“a bucketful of gold” notwithstanding). In fact, the way Dean uses “Recuerdo” reminds me an awful lot of the Quintet in A Little Night Music–they even have a song called “Remember”! Another commonality Dean’s “Recuerdo” shares with that musical? 3/4 time. And that comes from the poem’s natural rhythm. It has an imperfect dactylic tetrameter, a meter in poetry that stresses the first syllable in a set of three, making the poem “much like a waltz.”
This musicality shouldn’t be too surprising; poetry has long been associated with song (the Greek chorus was an actual chorus), and has been successfully set to other musical types, classical and pop alike. The Sondheim attitude that has kept poetry out of the musical theatre realm is a valid one, but Carmel Dean has found a way around his quibbles—by not trying to turn a poem into a character song, and letting it stand as commentary. The end result is quite a lovely duet that works just as well outside the show as it does in.