Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Disney Magic


Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert, “Disney in Concert,” was subtitled “Magical Music from the Movies.” As such, it was as much stage show and multimedia event as orchestral concert. Playing to an enthusiastic audience that included both costumed children and regular Symphony attendees, Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt took the podium in Century II Concert Hall and shared the stage with four singers: Juliana Hansen, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Kyle Eberlein, and Nathan Andrew Riley. All four are veterans of Disney stage productions, with experience putting their own spin on characters already familiar to the audience through the classic film versions. Throughout the performance, clips and still images from Disney movies accompanied the music on a large video screen; expressive stage lighting also contributed to the spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, the program leaned heavily on movies spanning the last twenty-five years, from the Menken-Ashman scores from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, to the ubiquitous hit “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen. There was time for history as well, however: the orchestra got things rolling with an instrumental medley (arranged by Bruce Healey) that combined favorites “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and several songs from Mary Poppins and Cinderella with non-film classics “Mickey Mouse March” and “It’s A Small World.” Later selections paid tribute to The Jungle Book and (again) Mary Poppins.

The four vocalists, at first introduced one by one, took turns playing emcee, soloist, and backup singer: Hansen lit up the stage as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, before turning the lead over to Gerson for a gorgeous rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. A suite of songs from Beauty and the Beast was an opportunity to unleash some inventive staging, with the four soloists reenacting the opening ensemble “Bonjour!” with Hansen as Belle. Later in the same number, Eberlein showed off his comic chops as Lumiere for “Be Our Guest,” again joined by the other three for a rambunctious performance that climaxed with an energetic kick-line. (Eberlein in particular has a knack for bringing characters to life without simply imitating Louis Prima or Robin Williams: to say he stole the show would be unfair to the other singers, but he displayed the most individual personality.)

The orchestra played strongly under Bernhardt’s unfussy baton, especially in a few purely instrumental selections (fittingly, as Bernhardt pointed out, they performed a suite from Klaus Badelt’s score from Pirates of the Caribbean on “Talk Like A Pirate Day”): Alan Menken’s score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame had plenty of big moments that showed off the brass (always important in film scoring!) and percussion. (The arrangements often incorporated elements from the score in interesting ways: the Beauty and the Beast suite, for example, began with the celebratory music of the Beast’s final transformation, a good example of composer John Oswald’s adage that when repurposed, “endings make good beginnings.”) Principal oboist Andrea Banke’s fluent playing also provided the requisite Middle Eastern flavor between vocal selections from Aladdin.

A few numbers pushed at the limits of what could be recreated live, and two numbers suffered from the combination of a resonant hall and live mics: in Riley’s “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid and Eberlein’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, the sound was muddy and the drum-heavy rhythms didn’t show off the orchestra at its best. In both cases, however, the soloists poured on the energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The bottom line is that when the singers are so evidently having this much fun, it’s hard not to join in. (A few numbers were sing-alongs, with lyrics displayed on the screen; my five-year-old son, at his first orchestra concert, was having just as much fun mimicking the instrumentalists, enthusiastically beating on invisible drums or sawing away at a phantom double bass.)

Two highlights capped the evening: Gerson took the lead on Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in an arrangement that followed the film version closely, but with added harmonies from the other three singers. The effect was dazzling in its precision, and gave the audience a chance to hear a very familiar piece of music in a new setting. Finally, the orchestra and singers left it all on stage with selections from The Lion King (a collaboration of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer), including “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” (which had much cleaner sound than the other rhythmic numbers), and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It was a strong note to end on; with the beginning of the Classics series next month, the Wichita Symphony has the makings of a strong season ahead of it.


Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe


A mysterious plague is sweeping the Earth: known as the “Purple Death” because of the single purple spot it leaves on the skin of its victims, the disease is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and authorities are helpless to stop mounting panic. Professor Gordon is one of the scientists struggling to find a cure, and it is his son Flash (already a hero for saving the earth several times over) who, with Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden, discovers the culprit. A ship from Mongo is spotted high in the atmosphere, dropping the malign dust that causes the Purple Death.


Starting for the planet Mongo at once in Zarkov’s rocket ship, the trio face aerial combat with the invading ship and, feigning a crash, descend to Arboria, the home of Flash’s ally Prince Barin. Barin confirms that Emperor Ming yet lives and is undoubtedly behind the attacks on Earth, and a council of leaders who are opposed to the merciless dictator soon convenes at Barin’s palace.


The only antidote for the Death Dust is the element “polarite,” which can be found in the far Northern reaches of Frigia, represented by Queen Fria. The expedition to the icy realm is bulked out with footage from an earlier polar exploration film, White Hell of Pitz Palu; footage of downhill skiers appears in the montage that opens each chapter, leading me to expect a snowbound assault on Ming à la The Spy Who Loved Me or Inception, but it never happens. (Also, it wasn’t until I was selecting screen caps that I noticed Flash and Dale in their cold-weather gear bear a strong resemblance to Santa and Mrs. Claus.)


Although the threat of the Purple Death doesn’t take twelve chapters to resolve, it’s the inciting incident that kicks off the latest round of strikes and counter-strikes in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final serial in Universal’s epic adaptation of Alex Raymond’s popular comic strip.


Despite, or perhaps because of, its references to the events and characters of the 1936 and ’38 serials, Conquers the Universe shows just how much time has passed since the success of the first Flash Gordon. Many aspects of the production, impressive in ’36, would have seemed crude just four years later, especially with Republic’s slick, streamlined adventure serials entering the market in the mean time. The static recap cards from the earlier serials have been replaced by scrolling titles; this now-familiar format had been used in Buck Rogers (also starring Flash Gordon lead Buster Crabbe) and would appear in other serials of the 1940s (and of course was the inspiration for the similar opening crawl in the Star Wars films).


The pacing is rapid throughout, with clear but often functional dialogue that serves the plot; Flash Gordon was never about deep characterization or philosophy, but Conquers the Universe is especially plot-heavy. And while many effects look quaint to modern eyes (Mongo’s giant iguanas make an appearance, and electrical effects are frequently accomplished with zig-zag lightning bolts scratched directly onto the film), just as many impress with how effective simple devices can be, and there are enough new settings and perils that the serial doesn’t feel like a retread.


Of particular note are an assault by exploding robots (Chapter Three, “Walking Bombs”), given an uncanny mechanical gait through the magic of undercranking, and the tribe of “Rock Men” who dwell in Arboria’s “no man’s land.” (Unlike the Clay People of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the Rock Men only dress as rocks to camouflage themselves from the giant lizards.) The Rock Men speak backwards, and once Dr. Zarkov realizes that their language is the same as that of a “lost tribe” that once inhabited Earth’s Gobi Desert, he is able to communicate with them; after Flash saves the Rock King’s son from a disaster, they aid the Earthlings in their fight against Ming.


Several plot elements that were missing from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars reappear in Conquers the Universe: Ming once again hopes to make Dale his bride, and Ming’s daughter Princess Aura reappears, still happily married to Prince Barin. The cast has been shuffled–Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Dale, and both Barin and Aura are recast (by Roland Drew and Shirley Deane, respectively)–but Buster Crabbe reprises the title role, Charles Middleton returns as Ming, and Frank Shannon again plays Dr. Zarkov.


Speaking of Barin and Aura, the happy couple looks quite different from their earlier incarnations. As Barin, Drew cuts a more dashing figure than Richard Alexander: with his trim mustache and forest costume, he strongly resembles Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. As for Aura, the changes to her personality outweigh those to her appearance: instead of the scheming, morally flexible antiheroine of the 1936 serial, she is here entirely settled and content in her life in Arboria, and her reaction to being pulled back into her father’s evil machinations is passive terror and indignation. Marriage has domesticated her.


Fortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), the lack of Aura’s feminine wiliness is made up for by the introduction of Lady Sonja (Anne Gwynne), an Arborian lady-in-waiting secretly loyal to Ming. Once Sonja lures Aura to Arboria’s Red Forest to be abducted by Ming’s forces (for even he would not bomb Arboria without first making sure his daughter was safe), the treacherous lady becomes half of a villainous double act with Captain Torch (Don Rowan). Together, Torch and Sonja, along with Lieutenant Thong (tee hee), shadow Flash Gordon & co. and bedevil them in a variety of ways, carrying out missions for Ming.


Sonja doesn’t have the depth of Aura–she’s purely spiteful and untrustworthy, without even the motivation of misplaced love–but it’s worth noting the number of female characters in the Flash Gordon serials and the range of their motivations. Aside from Dale, Aura, and Sonja, there’s Queen Fria of Frigia (an uncredited Luli Deste), who expresses a hope that Flash Gordon might be convinced to lead Frigia’s armed forces, teasing a source of tension with Dale (this comes to nothing, although it may be more fleshed out in the comic strips that are the basis of the story).


In fact, Flash Gordon does a better job of female representation than the original Star Wars trilogy that it inspired: in Conquers the Universe, Dale is revealed to be an expert chemist and radio operator, a detail I don’t recall being mentioned before, but which gives her more to do than simply be kidnapped. It’s true that at least some of the women on-screen are purely eye candy, and there’s less of the emphasis on Buster Crabbe’s physique that made the 1936 serial an equal-opportunity source of titillation (like the Tarzan series, Flash Gordon in all its iterations has celebrated the body beautiful). Still, compared to the many serials I’ve watched that have only a single token woman, it’s refreshing that the population of the fantasy world of planet Mongo at least contains individuals of both sexes.


Ultimately, Ming’s greatest weakness is the number of people in his service–guards, scientists, soldiers–who are willing to turn against him. The political subtext is no more complex or subtle than before–dictators are bad–but the story emphasizes that those who take power by force and cruelty will never have the loyalty of those they conquer. Rather, they will only breed a thirst for revenge in their underlings. As always, Flash Gordon inspires trust and confidence in those he meets simply by doing the right thing.

And what about that title, anyway? Conquering isn’t really Flash’s bag. As silly as it sounds, Ming in his arrogance declares at one point, “I am the universe!” So, by the transitive property, when Flash inevitably conquers Ming . . . well, you get the idea.


But just in case you didn’t, Zarkov explains it.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from Timeless Media Group

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Doom of the Dictator” (Chapter Twelve). Alliteration!


Best Cliffhanger: Another plot thread that continues from the earlier serials is Ming’s desire to have Zarkov’s scientific genius at his command. So, in Chapter Four (“The Destroyer Ray”), when Ming has Zarkov captive and the Earth scientist refuses to serve him, Ming orders his execution. A death ray slowly moves toward the chained scientist, and when Flash shows up to rescue him, he appears to be caught in it, too. What really elevates this is that Ming, surrounded by his retinue, has forced Dale (also captive) to watch the scene unfold. She begs Ming to spare them, beating on his chest with her fists, and then covers her face, unable to watch, while Ming cackles at his victims’ helplessness. “He has chosen his own death!” he sneers. This is what we watch serials for.


A Note on Costumes: Although there’s still a great deal of space opera exoticism, including long looks at the harem-like entertainments Ming has at his disposal, the costumes and sets display fewer of the ancient or near-Eastern motifs that were prominent in the earlier serials. Barin’s palace resembles a traditional European castle, with parapets and everything, and most of the male characters dress in military uniforms with braids and epaulets; except for the ray guns and space ships, Arboria might as well be Ruritania, an imagined Mitteleuropa in outer space.


Even Ming gets in on the act, assuming a high-plumed dress uniform, “now more a wicked general than Satan” in the words of Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut. One could assume that proximity to Earth has affected Ming’s tastes: although most of Ming’s pleasures are accompanied by stereotypical “Oriental” music, the soundtrack is a distinctly modern rhumba in Chapter Four, leading me to imagine Xavier Cugat and his orchestra chained to a bandstand and forced to play just off-camera. You’re a peacock, Ming. Strut, Ming, strut.


Sample Dialogue: “Seems like old times, being at war again with Ming, Zarkov.” –Flash Gordon, Chapter Two (“Freezing Torture”)


What Others Have Said: “Earth heroes have journeyed to other worlds by Crystal Door and spaceship. Our own planet has been invaded many times by alien menaces bent on dominating the Earthlings. In all these instances there have been mighty conflicts between good and evil. But after the holocaust of ray zapping and atomic blasting had settled, the audiences huddled in the safety of terran movie houses admitted one important fact: There was only one alien tyrant capable of conquering the universe, Ming the Merciless. And there was but a single hero able to defeat him–Flash Gordon.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

That brings this summer’s serial coverage to an end. I’ll probably still have a few serial-related articles coming up, and Medleyana will continue to update on other topics, but that’s it for regular entries until next summer. Until then, thanks for reading along, and thanks for all the comments and support!