Randy Newman at the Guthrie Theater, 2/21/11

Randy Newman
February 21, 2011
The Guthrie Theater

In his recorded work, Randy Newman is a fractious figure. The top-flight composer working on commission rarely shares a sheet with the bright political satirist, and the vulnerable autobiographer never shares his regrets with either of them.

That elusiveness made last night's Guthrie show a meaningful reveal to those who had never seen him live, and a meaningful reminder to those who had -- Newman is a man of a thousand voices, yet he is one man, and he is at peace with all of his songs, even as they war with one another.

"It's Money That I Love," "Birmingham," "I Miss You," and "Mama Told Me Not To Come" made outstanding openers, for they form the basic atlas by which Newman steers his craft. His early rejoinders were few and brief and full of welcome candor -- he spoke frankly about composing for money and writing a love song for a first wife while married to a second, and played "Short People" early enough to cure the dread of its approach.

A more daring Newman emerged from the intermission. He named ugly names when complaining of the tyrants for which he has toiled in his work as a film composer, then played "You've Got A Friend In Me" without blushing. After a slapstick red spotlight climbed the curtain during "Burn On," Newman played "In Germany Before The War," the bleakest song of his career. He gave no preamble when he played "Rednecks," leaving it for the grown-ups to explain to their children why Newman can say "nigger" and get away with it. By mid-set, a reflection began to take shape, as when a late-era Chuck Close becomes clearer with distance -- between Newman's contempt for man, his romantic regret, and his passion for paying work, a painstaking portrait lays half-hidden, not just of the mood of a nation across five tempestuous decades, but of the plight of a wise man in a fool's world.

Randy Newman at the Guthrie Theater, 2/21/11
Randy Newman at the Guthrie Theater, 2/21/11
Photos by Stacy Schwartz

Startlingly, Newman seemed to falter emotionally during "Losing You," visibly struggling to sing and play with strength by the song's end. Even if it was just the gesture of a consummate professional giving a sad song a sad treatment, it piqued the great difficulty in understanding Newman's work and its place in the hearts of his listeners, as well as his own: With Newman, when is playtime over? Is it ever? He fooled the socially sensitive with "Short People." Is he fooling the sentimental with "Marie"? There are those who know better than to clap along to "Rednecks." What does it mean when they're outnumbered, however briefly, by those who don't?

Thankfully, Newman's live manner made his mood self-evident. This was, for all purposes, a recital, and recitals are dreary chores in the hands of those less naturally relaxed and at-home onstage. For the two hours he played, there was not a moment's clash between Newman's practically irreconcilable attitudes.

More than most, Newman goes poorly represented and misunderstood, praised and punished in equal measure by the ill-informed. This is due in part to a kind of professional humility -- where other performers sport chic braggadocio and self-made myth, Newman goes plainclothed. For last night's capacity crowd at the Wurtele Thrust, as he has since 12 Songs and prior, Newman did chameleon's work, keeping the casual too entertained to notice him sitting there naked the whole time.

Critic's bias: The critic has a deep contempt for Family Guy. To his credit, it predates the show's unkind caricature of Newman.
The crowd: A dismaying mix of the middle aged who knew most of "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and the very young who knew "You've Got A Friend In Me" by heart.
Overheard in the crowd: Plenty of unintelligible garbage from the fellow seated behind the critic, who had been robbed by a night's drinking of everything but a faint recollection of the occasional chorus and the courage to sing it out loud.
Random notebook dump: The well-meant clap-along during "Rednecks" and its quick decay can't be priced.

It's Money That I Love
I Miss You
Mama Told Me Not To Come
Short People
The Girls In My Life (Part 1)
The World Isn't Fair
Living Without You
The Great Nations of Europe
Harps and Angels
Real Emotional Girl
I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)
Political Science
God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)


Last Night I Had a Dream
Burn On
In Germany Before the War
You've Got a Friend In Me
You Can Leave Your Hat On
Dixie Flyer
Losing You
A Wedding in Cherokee County
Louisiana, 1927
I Love To See You Smile
Sail Away
I Love L.A.
Feels Like Home


Lonely At the Top
I Think It's Going To Rain Today

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