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The Magic Maker: A Portrait of John Langstaff and His Revels

av Susan Cooper

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Biography & Autobiography. Performing Arts. Young Adult Nonfiction. HTML:

On Christmas Eve in 1920, John Meredith Langstaff was born into a music-filled home where a rousing, wassailing carol party was the peak of his family's year. Half a century later, his inspired Christmas Revels was born, a theatrical weaving of traditional song, folkdance, and drama that has become a beloved institution across the country. Now award-winning author Susan Cooper, a friend and writer for the Revels, traces its roots through the rhythms of Jack Langstaff's lifefrom star choirboy (and notorious troublemaker) to his early career as a noted recital singer; from a daunting World War II injury to his work as recording artist, TV performer, teacher, and children's author. Along the way, his passion for music, ritual, and community fused to spark the incomparable Revels, a participatory celebration that promises to draw children of all ages for generations to come.

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This biography documents the life of John Langstaff, the creator of Revels. The author Susan Cooper was a friend of Langstaff, herself a contributor as a writer for the Revels for two decades so the book has a casual feel to it. With the Revels being the key accomplishment of Langstaff's life, I'm surprised how much of this book is dedicated to his early life. Not that it's not interesting, it's just that it's halfway through the book that the Revels are introduced. But it is important because it is from the singing parties the Langstaff family hosted in Brooklyn that the seed of the ritual and communal experience of Revels grew. I've been involved in Revels for almost three decades in one way or another, although after Langstaff's retirement from performing. Still I've heard his voice on so many recordings and his spirit remains to animate this important community.

Favorite Passages:
Altogether he was in Walter Reed for about a year, for a sequence of operations. They told him afterward that he might not have recovered so well if his lungs hadn’t been abnormally developed, from his life as a singer — so it was his dedication to his voice that brought the voice back to him. - p.78

“He would always get us to sing loudly, and stand up to sing,” one of them wrote. “He told us, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, don’t shrink down and try to hide it’ (he bent over to demonstrate, with a little pained, fearful look on his face). ‘Stand up’ (he rose up super tall) ‘and make a BIG mistake!’ - p. 86

This should be a ritual celebration of the winter solstice, a Christmas festival that — in spite of the name — was not specifically Christian or even religious. Belief should be irrelevant; if one member of a Revels audience felt she was celebrating the birth of Christ, her neighbor should be equally able to feel that he was celebrating the rebirth of the year. It should use the emotional forces of music, of dance, of words. It should be a celebration that would belong to its community, yet reach for artistic excellence. Perhaps he was reaching for a new kind of Mass, dedicated not to a specific God but to a celebration of the amazing mystery of life. - p. 111

And at the center of this Revels, and of every Revels thereafter, would be something that hadn’t been there in the early New York or Washington productions, or on television: a large chorus, drawn from the local community. The chorus was key to Jack’s whole vision of this celebration of the solstice; it was the link between performers and audience. He wanted amateurs, local amateurs, because he felt that audiences were more easily persuaded to sing if they could see a group of people just like themselves up there singing with them. But because he was also professional to the core, he wanted amateurs of professional standard. This wasn’t going to be a village pageant; he wanted no allowances made. - p. 112

 
And when Carol, as director, began blocking their onstage movements at rehearsal, she gave them an instruction that has held ever since: they should divide themselves into families. Each family held a husband, a wife, a child or children, perhaps a grandparent or two; these units would not move around the stage in self-conscious lumps, but just the awareness of the fictional relationships was enormously helpful to amateur singers who had never been taught how to behave “naturally” on a stage. Backstage, during the early Revels years, when the Memorial Hall was a single vast dressing room for the entire cast, you could see the members of each family hanging out together comfortably even when they weren’t performing. - p. 113

On the last line of the last refrain everyone onstage joined hands and Jack led them down through the house and out into this great vaulted space, collecting audience members on the way. With the brass quintet picking up the tune in a balcony, the audience found themselves singing, dancing, snaking in ever-diminishing circles until the last repeat of the refrain ended in a great communal shout. They loved it. They’ve loved it ever since. - p. 117

That’s how people were said to become part of the Revels in those early days, and no doubt still are; it’s a matter of personal chemistry, a subjective judgment. Someone could be a talented singer, a natural performer, a skilled manager, but in the end there was always the same question: “Is he — or she — a Revels person?”

Jack recruited people who shared his own attitudes. A “Revels person” had to have enthusiasm, dedication, an instinctive emotional response to traditional material — but above all a respect for it. People who liked simply to dress up in tights or robes for a Renaissance Fayre and play at being Elizabethan did not qualify for a place in a Revels cast, though he was perfectly happy to have them in the audience. A Revels was fun, but at its heart was something deeply serious. Like all ritual, it was not to be treated lightly. - p. 135-136

Jack’s approach to professional matters was also idiosyncratic, though less perilous. He was a delight to work with, but he was not easy, or direct. In his own quiet way he was profoundly obstinate, but he hated confrontation. It was a virtue and a vice. Though he would occasionally admit to being angry — “I am very provoked!” he would say — he would wriggle like a worm in sunlight to avoid a fight. - p. 143

And there’s my favorite Revels story, concerning the performance of this Victorian Revels before which the tailcoat of one of the tallest chorus members went missing. Raine Miller, on impulse, went running out into the streets around Sanders Theatre and started banging on front doors. “Please,” she cried when the first one opened, “can you lend Revels a tailcoat?” The man who opened the door smiled at her. He was not only a world-famous economist, he was six feet-eight inches tall. “Certainly,” said John Kenneth Galbraith. - p. 152

But Revels was an institution by now, and its audiences were accustomed to the climax of their Christmas ritual being the “Sussex Mummers Carol.” They felt deprived. One night, having finished “Sing We Noel,” they went right on and sang the “Sussex Mummers” anyway. - p. 154

The novelist Gregory Maguire, who attended it, was at twenty-two the Center’s first and most notable graduate student — and briefly, in a nice familial connection, a member of the Revels chorus. (Eventually he became deputy director of the Center, and later wrote a book called Wicked, which was turned, as you may have noticed, into a musical.) - p. 189

Jack loved music, but above all he loved people; he was an enthusiast, a life enhancer, one of those people who light up the world. Though he avoided belonging to any specific church or even religion, and took care that Revels should do the same, he was a deeply spiritual man; at heart, he was still the choirboy who felt he was singing to God. I think he’d have liked the fact that the crew of the space shuttle Discovery were awakened one morning in 2007 by — at the request of its commander’s husband — the voice of John Langstaff singing “The Lord of the Dance.” It’s the ultimate celebration, perhaps, to have your voice traveling out into space, out into the mystery, paying tribute, spreading joy. - p. 192
( )
  Othemts | Jan 1, 2024 |
Wonderful portrait of an amazing man. Susan Cooper was the perfect person to write this book, which is partly a biography and partly an account of the evolution of the Revels. I think there really was something magical about John Langstaff, and I am deeply grateful to him for his boundless enthusiasm for sharing his vision with the world. Long live the Revels! ( )
  ebein | Mar 27, 2017 |
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Biography & Autobiography. Performing Arts. Young Adult Nonfiction. HTML:

On Christmas Eve in 1920, John Meredith Langstaff was born into a music-filled home where a rousing, wassailing carol party was the peak of his family's year. Half a century later, his inspired Christmas Revels was born, a theatrical weaving of traditional song, folkdance, and drama that has become a beloved institution across the country. Now award-winning author Susan Cooper, a friend and writer for the Revels, traces its roots through the rhythms of Jack Langstaff's lifefrom star choirboy (and notorious troublemaker) to his early career as a noted recital singer; from a daunting World War II injury to his work as recording artist, TV performer, teacher, and children's author. Along the way, his passion for music, ritual, and community fused to spark the incomparable Revels, a participatory celebration that promises to draw children of all ages for generations to come.

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