The other night my friend, A, and I were watching the movie remake of the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific.” As young music students, we had the entire score memorized: lyrics, syncopated beats, all the little vocal quirks and flourishes of the original stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. And here we were, some sixty years later, singing it again, beaming at each other, delighted at the triumph of recall and the sweet memories it brought back; we sang the whole score to each other, making our own flourishes, laughing and crying at the feat and the time gone by.
And I got to thinking, if it were for entertainment alone, it would be easy to live in the past. And not so bad. There are revivals of the great Broadway musicals everywhere, live and on tv. You can Google anything. And Youtube? Youtube is the absolute motherlode. You can kill days, nights, weeks on Youtube if you’re not careful.
Case in point: The day after “South Pacific” I Googled the musical genre “salsa” because my friend and I were talking about Larry Harlowe, (el Judio Marvellioso – the marvelous Jew famous for his salsa sound) with whom we went to high school. Google sent me to Youtube and I found and listened to some cuts from the Latin Legends/ Fania All-Stars album and while I was listening, I was reading the strip of attractions down the right side of my screen. It included Dick Cavett’s interview with Groucho Marx, which reminded me of the famous Cavett interview with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer so I watched both of those and on the strip of attractions on another page I saw Miles Davis, so I listened to some Miles, which reminded me of Chet Baker so I listened to him, and on the side of his page was Peggy Lee so I looked up some Peggy Lee and after listening to her sing “Black Coffee,” I got to missing Sarah Vaughan, so I listened to some Sarah Vaughan.
“How fabulous,” I thought, “You can find anything on Youtube!” Which made me wonder if you could really find anything, so — not to watch, mind, because I had already spent too many hours watching too much—but just to prove that I could indeed find anything, I went looking for the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” bit, which just popped into my head, and sure enough I found it, and as long as it was right there, I figured I might as well watch it, and I did. And watching that made me think how much I preferred old comedy to new comedy and that brought me to Richard Pryor, so I looked up Richard Pryor, and George Carlin and Buddy Hackett and…well you get it. A day gone. But it was pleasurable without much fuss, like bathing in re-runs of Seinfeld instead of pulling against the tide of Meet The Press.
Watching stuff we’ve seen before is soothing. The music plays as we heard it play before; the talk is talk that mattered urgently once but maybe not so much right now; the comedy is still funny but not so cutting edge anymore.
The present comes at us with surprise and relevance, and though that can be exciting and stimulating, it also unsettles. So bring on the re-runs. And old musicals. And Youtube. Sometimes living in the past is a temporary cure for the present and the anodyne to thoughts of the future.