Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Hart Attack

Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

The glory days of camp were made possible because the mainstream culture fed it - with fodder both ridiculous (the lows of vaudeville and burlesque; the rigid norms of an inflexible society, so ripe for travesty) and, as here, in a song by Rodgers and Hart, sublime.  Wit, kids - whatever happened to it?

A performance like this, by the cryingly under-shouted-about Miss Mary Testa, a Broadway stalwart but not anything like a name off the Rialto, is a reminder of that.  She grabs "To Keep My Love Alive" and takes it out for an airing it won't soon forget, in the process recalling why drag, once upon a time, was so effective an entertainment:  it took the actual performance practices of real female stars and ratcheted them up a notch or ten. It started with quality and went beyond; that's why, I think, it's not really possible to camp off of so many of today's stars.  In the overused (and frequently misunderstood) words of dear Miss Gertrude Stein, there's no there there.

Unlike some camp triumphs, which eviscerate something once taken seriously (one thinks of what Beatrice Lillie could do to an unsuspecting Victorian parlor song like "Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden"), this song was always a comedy number.  Extracted from its original Arthurian setting in A Connecticut Yankee, it's catnip for a concert performer who wants to see just how far she can go, perfect either for a gala party (are there any parties left where people still sing - outside the dire context of karaoke?) or in recital.  It's the kind of song that once upon a time was part and parcel of the knowledge set of the Cosmopolitan Urban Homosexual, along with any number of other list and comedy songs (from Porter's "You're the Top" - with its implicit double meanings - to Bolcom's "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise"), the monologues of Ruth Draper, the films (or at least the stills) of Maria Montez, and, in literature, the works of Compton MacKenzie, Ronald Firbank, and E.F. Benson.

Confidential to any songwriter reading this: why aren't you writing a musical for Mary Testa?  It's practically a civic duty.

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