GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to "Mad About Music" as we continue a tradition of revisiting a show when a guest is back in the headlines. And in this case we return to Director Mike Nichols, the subject of a just-completed two-week, 17 film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Mike Nichols is among an elite few who have been awarded all the major American entertainment awards: an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and a Grammy. For his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he was nominated as the best director, for The Graduate, he won the Academy Award, followed by a string of successes including, Carnal Knowledge, Primary Colors—it goes on and on. And on Broadway, seven Tony awards, including Barefoot in the Park and Annie. And just a few days ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York just concluded a retrospective of 17 films. But as we shall see, behind the acclaimed director, is a music lover whose selections reveal another side of this remarkable achiever. So let's return to Mike Nichols' original appearance on "Mad About Music" when we started out by asking him if he’d ever considered directing an opera.
MIKE NICHOLS: Yes, it has come up. It came up partly because my grandmother, strangely, wrote the libretto for Strauss's Salome. That is to say, she translated, Oscar Wilde wrote Salome in French, and my grandmother, who is a poet, translated it from the French, into German, and worked with Strauss, and so among other things, Leonard Bernstein, who was a friend, asked me if I wanted to direct what he was going to conduct, Salome in Vienna, and I said, "Are you kidding?" To go into Vienna with their own opera, that's not going to be my debut in opera. That was just fear talking. And the whole thing of opera that those who are devoted to an opera, if Tosca enters from the right instead of the left, that's considered a revolution in the staging. I've always been very afraid of it – the main reason I haven't done it is, Louis Malle, a friend of mine, was a film director of course, and did direct an opera; said that the entire thing that he had worked on was ruined because the conductor took it too fast on the night of the performance at this festival. I've always been scared, because it does belong to the conductor.
KAPLAN: But if you had to pick an opera with which you might have an affinity, where you think you might be able to bring something to it, if you didn't have to deal with those vagaries, what might it be?
NICHOLS: It might be Cosi. It might easily be one of the Mozart operas. They're really my favorite operas, and I saw a very great production by Visconti of Figaro once. Not with particularly famous singers, but it was so remarkable physically, and politically, if you can say that, it sort of reminded you that Figaro was about politics and about class, in a way that we forget. That was exciting, and I still have fantasies about it, but I probably won't do it.
KAPLAN: Now you mentioned that if Tosca enters left or right, it might be a revolution, do you approve of interpretations of opera by directors that are very modern and not necessarily faithfully following the libretto, at least technically, but perhaps only in spirit?
NICHOLS: I do, really, because it's not unlike for instance what happened here in New York for many years, with the restaging of Cabaret. The sort of unspoken thing by the young director who restages a classic is, look, we already have the classic production of this, we all know what that is and we're not going to lose it. This is another point of view on it. This is an exploration of this piece, and sometimes, it can be very exciting. And I'm all in favor of exploratory new stagings.
KAPLAN: Good. Well then, let's turn to your musical selections today, because you mentioned that Cosi might be something you might even tackle if you had to be an opera director, and I see it is your first selection.
NICHOLS: I love Cosi. I love it because it is as great music as there is in opera anywhere, and because it's a very Mozart thing that happens, which is that the plot is very funny and the plot is all about masks and masquerade and yet the music is full of belief and heart. And it's the combination of the light, farcical plot and the beating heart of the feelings in the music that make it endlessly fascinating.
KAPLAN: The trio from Act I from Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, with soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman and Sesto Bruscantini. The Philharmonia Orchestra led by Herbert von Karajan, a selection of my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," Mike Nichols. Now you mentioned earlier that your grandmother wrote the translation of the libretto for Salome, so you must have come from a musical home.
NICHOLS: It was a musical home in that classical music was played and loved, and my father loved the piano and loved certain pieces on the piano, and they became very familiar and then actually, after my father died, my mother had a boyfriend who was a 12-tone composer who played the upright in our living room.
KAPLAN: I don't see too much music of that type on your list today.
NICHOLS: We hated it.
KAPLAN: Did you play the piano as a child? Take lessons at all?
NICHOLS: I took lessons briefly, and strangely, from a very nice lady, I say strangely for reasons that you'll see in a minute, from a very nice lady called Mrs. Szilard. And her husband, who I was very fond of, and he was Dr. Szilard and he was in fact Leo Szilard, who brought us the atom bomb a little bit later along with Fermi and Teller and the rest of them. And I only made that connection much later, of course. I had no idea what Dr. Szilard was working on while we were doing Bach two-part inventions, but that was part of my childhood.
KAPLAN: Now, earlier, you mentioned your relationship with Leonard Bernstein? Did you know him well? Did you know his wife Felicia, too?
NICHOLS: I knew her even better. They were very, very dear friends of mine, and Felicia was remarkable and beloved by a whole circle of people in New York, who still miss her and will forever miss her. She was a very funny person. When she was actually dying and very ill in the hospital, a friend of mine went to see her, and the woman who went to see her was stunned by how very ill she looked, and there were nurses running around, and she went up to her, to Felicia, who's lying there and said, "Oh, dearest Felicia, is there anything, anything at all that I can do?" Felicia said, "Yes! Never get another perm!" In fact, Felicia figures in one of the things I've chosen, the Schubert Quintet in C major, which is something that I fell in love with in college. In college, we used to take LPs, as they were then called, large piles of them, into the listening booth, and this kindly record store that let various nuts do that because there was no buying limit or who could afford it, we just played them, and they let us, which was, I always thought, particularly nice. And one of the pieces I came to love that way was that Quintet, and as it happened, Felicia had asked that it be played at her memorial, and it was played by Isaac Stern and a group of great musicians. It will forever be connected with her in my mind.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Adagio movement from Schubert's String Quintet, performed by the Emerson String Quartet, with Mstislav Rostropovich as the extra cello. One of the choices of my guest today on "Mad About Music," Mike Nichols. You can learn more about Mike Nichols, or listen to any of our prior shows, read a transcript, by logging on to our website at WNYC.org and then just click on "Mad About Music." When we return, we'll explore what Mike Nichols' musical selections can tell us about Mike Nichols himself.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan and we are celebrating Mike Nichols, the subject of a just completed two-week 17 film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. We are doing this by revisiting his earlier appearance on "Mad About Music". You know, looking over your selections today, one has to come to the conclusion there's a big gap; there's not a single symphony, is there?
NICHOLS: It's true. It's not that I don't like a lot of symphonies. Maybe especially Mahler, and in fact, I could imagine putting on a Mahler symphony. It's that, by and large, when I want to hear orchestral music, I'll go for a Mozart piano concerto or a Bach two violin concerto, or such things, and most of all, voice and chamber music.
KAPLAN: Well, do you see music then more as an ensemble of individuals, which you require, that would connect to your experience in the theater?
NICHOLS: Yes, I think the thing that gets me most is the kind of intertwining of voices. That's very acute of you. It is not unlike what gets me in the theater or in movies. It's insides and outsides of people, simultaneously, and it's an interaction between and among people. An orchestra is, after all, a creature created by many people, to become one new thing. You don't think so much of the – unless you're technically involved with it, of the individual musicians, you think of what they’ve created in their orchestra, and that's magnificent but it isn't my particular passion in music. That's more the individual voices, intertwined.
KAPLAN: I also noticed that your choices are all dreamy. Slow. They are to some extent, I would say, musical expressions of philosophy. We're going to hear more of them later, but I know the whole list, so I can say this now, and I would say they're nearly prayer-like in nature, which is a bit surprising for one of our foremost artists of comedy.
NICHOLS: Well, I guess part of that is that when you're looking for your favorite, the high point of a great concerto or a great string quartet, or for that matter, a great opera, tends to be a slow movement, a slow aria. You know, even "Vissi d’arte" sort of takes its time. I love whipping along in Bach and hearing all the choruses and the ornaments and all of that, but if I'm looking for my absolute favorite, it's going to be basically something slow and sweet.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, we're going to move away from something classical, but not slow and sweet, because we now come to that part of our show we call the "wildcard," where our guest has the opportunity to pick a selection that's not from the classical genre. And we've had some wonderful examples all over the place. So, what "wildcard" did you bring us today?
NICHOLS: Well, one of my favorite composers is the great American composer, Duke Ellington, and his piece "Solitude," which I love both just in his orchestral version and of course sung by Billie Holiday, it's to me a very special piece, a very special song. It's so special that when I was looking for something pop to play in Angels in America, – that I picked it; it's in my picture. My wife questioned it, the last time we were looking at my picture, and said, "You really want something that old?" And I said, "Well, yes I do."
KAPLAN: Duke Ellington's "In My Solitude," the "wildcard" selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, film and Broadway director, Mike Nichols. Let's talk a little bit about music in the movies. How important to a film's success would you say is the soundtrack?
NICHOLS: Extremely important! You know, the music, as it is in opera, music is the feelings of the characters. And it's very often your way into those feelings. My most extreme experience with music in a picture was The Graduate, in which, as I was shooting The Graduate, in California, I was living in a rented house and my brother had sent me a record that I ended up playing every morning, like at five, or whenever you get up to go to work on a movie. And I played it while I was showering and getting dressed every day and after about a month of shooting and a month of playing this Simon and Garfunkel record every morning, one morning I was standing there, I thought, this is our score! Why did it take me so long to understand that this is the score for this picture? And it was the first time that anybody had used that particular kind of music for a score, and it defined the movie.
KAPLAN: "Sounds of Silence."
NICHOLS: "Sounds of Silence," but really, every note of the score of the movie, "Mrs. Robinson" and all the rest of it was Simon and Garfunkel. In fact, they wrote "Mrs. Robinson," or rather, improvised it on the spot, while we were recording the score. They had a couple of new songs, and they played the one that was in that place, and I said, "I don't like that. Do you have anything else?" And they whispered for a minute, and then they suddenly just sang "Mrs. Robinson." And I said, "Well, that's fine. Let’s use that." And it turned out that Paul had been working on a song called "Mrs. Roosevelt." It was about Eleanor Roosevelt, but that he thought, well, it would work very well for Mrs. Robinson, too. And he just adapted it on the spot. That’s why, in the picture, the rest of the lyric isn't done yet. They go de-de-de-de-de-de because there is no lyric.
KAPLAN: That's an amazing story! I didn't know that. So I gather you play a serious role yourself in selecting music for your films.
NICHOLS: Oh, absolutely. That's not something anybody else can do for you, and having it written, you know, and you either, you know, romance the composer, or fight with the composer to get what you imagine, and as you know, music is the most difficult thing in the world to talk about. Adjectively, what do you say – how can you be concrete about something that is so different from words?
KAPLAN: What about classical music? How often do you inject that into the movie?
NICHOLS: Not as often as I would like, because it's come to mean a specific kind of person and a specific kind of movie, at the moment. But that is not to say – I did something called Wit, about a woman who is dying of cancer and we used abstruse classical music, Arvo Part and people like that, modern music which ended up perfect for that film. I think it's a great resource. You just have to mine something perhaps not so much the romantic period, so that it can be fresh and join your film rather than just being one more Rachmaninoff concerto.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, then, let's return to your classical selections and again, another dreamy, slow movement – this one from Beethoven.
NICHOLS: This one is the one that knocked me out in college when I was just generally being devoured by this love of music altogether, and it was of all the late Beethoven quartets, and their famous opening up of the music of the future, and they're sort of the – what's that Picasso painting, the three women that changed modern art – Demoiselles d'Avignon; that as much as that changed painting, you know, the Beethoven late quartets changed music. And in a strange way, the 15th Quartet, and the slow movement of the 15th Quartet, maybe most of all, and since it was used at the time by Aldous Huxley in a novel Point Counter Point, in which a man commits suicide and chooses to put on the slow movement of the 15th Quartet, it came to mean kind of sublime music, that I believe it still embodies.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Molto Adagio of Beethoven's 15th String Quartet in A minor, performed by the Guarneri Quartet, a selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, Mike Nichols, whose final selection we'll hear when we return.
This is Gilbert Kaplan and we are celebrating Mike Nichols, the subject of a just completed two-week, 17 film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. We are doing this by revisiting his earlier appearance on "Mad About Music". Now, I've been trying to characterize you for our audience by your musical choices, so let me continue. These are all highly romantic, especially your final choice, the moving Trio from the concluding moments of Strauss' Rosenkavalier. Do you regard yourself as a romantic?
NICHOLS: I would say in the end, probably and ineradicably, I've tried to do things about it, but I end up romantic, no matter what! And the Trio from the Rosenkavalier was just out and out, a way of getting girls, you know, it was simply saying, have I got something to play for you, and sitting them down and playing them the Trio, which it has to be said, almost always worked.
KAPLAN: For me, it was Johnny Matthis! I wasn't classical enough at that moment, I don't think...
NICHOLS: Maybe more practical!
KAPLAN: And what about the final Trio?
NICHOLS: It just breaks your heart. It is sort of a definition of bittersweet, which means that you feel for all of the characters and that sort of sense of one of them giving something up, and two of them finding love it's touching and it's sexy. And it - Strauss had this thing that he did, that gets me every time, which is, he just makes you work quite hard for a long time, and then, finally, finally, at the end of the opera, comes through with this sea of music that transports you and puts girls in the right mood, and just makes you love life.
KAPLAN: The final Trio from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Teresa Stich-Randall. The Philharmonia Orchestra led by Herbert von Karajan. The final selection of my guest on "Mad About Music," Mike Nichols. You know, as you were speaking of some of the other works, it was going through my mind that two of them that you chose, were connected with stories that you told about contemplation of death. Either someone asked for the music to be played at their funeral, in the case of Felicia Bernstein, or in the Huxley book about a man who contemplates suicide and has Beethoven in mind. So it's for that reason, I hope you won't mind if I ask you, have you ever thought about music you might want to play at your own funeral?
NICHOLS: No, I can't say that I've done that, partly because I think I'm going to put a thing in my will that says, no memorial, please. But I do think of music and death. I think of death all the time. I've always thought about it a lot. In a strange way, as you know, it's not only the bad news, it's the good news, because it makes this moment all the sweeter, whatever moment it is that you're in, and music is so intimately tied up with that. More than just being played at memorials, it's so much part of the celebration of, a mournfulness, either way, of the part in which we get to live until we don’t. It's very hard to separate them from one another.
KAPLAN: And with that bit of philosophy we concluded our original show with Mike Nichols. A remarkable guest and some very touching music. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music."
"Mad About Music"
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer