Imagine getting a chance to see what happens behind the scenes at such a gargantuan undertaking. Visualize the traumas and torments, the mistakes and the miracles. Now, take all those images and create your own internal movie, because you will need it after watching Sing Faster – A Stagehands' Ring Cycle. This documentary by filmmaker Jon Else purports to tell us the significant elements, the pains and the perfections, that befall a ragtag group of Union theater craftsman when they were asked to bring this overwhelmingly massive opera to life. Instead, we learn very little about the art of stagecraft and even less about how hard it was to realize Wagner's scope for the proscenium.
As a documentary, Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle lives up to about 2/3rds of the genre moniker. It is indeed a document, a souvenir of a time when the San Francisco Opera put on a performance of Der Ring Des Nibelugen and minimal hi-jinx ensued. Part of the problem with this paltry presentation – it barely runs an hour – is the fact that, for all the imagined issues that must have arisen during the groundwork for such a vast stage piece, we learn very little about what went into the actual creation. Oh sure, we get lots of stagehands and go-fers running around looking busy, babbling incoherent shorthand into headset microphones as every crisis is met with a snap decision and a group response. But this doesn't make Sing Faster any more perceptive. Instead, it fails to give us any of the background necessary to appreciate the well-honed teamwork of the tireless crew, and we are kept at a dull distance as problems pass before us like moths to a mid-summer streetlight. Sure, we are told a little about the convoluted narrative employed by Wagner with all its dwarves, giants, gods and monsters. But as for how any of these elements were realized and wrangled, we are left to scratch our heads.
The back stage saga is one of the more potent and powerful attention grabbers in the entertainment medium. Books and plays about the life behind the curtain are rife with tantalizing tales of disasters averted and catastrophes in the making. Sing Faster has very little of this internal intrigue. Instead, it sees the overall scale of the performances and the complexities of the preparations and just stands back in awe, never once broaching beyond the basic and surface. In many ways it's just a superficial peek into the arduous measures that go into a stage production and nothing more. Sing Faster acts like the 55-minute trailer for the real movie to come. Instead of giving us the detail we require to come away with some feeling of how these proficient professionals pulled it together, we are given a brief skimming of the trials and tribulations, and then, before we know it, everything is ephemeral arias and in-jokes. There are more insults than insights here, more goofing around among the casual cast than technical information. Sure, an overdose of 'hot-to' can be as boring as a lack of it, but there is no happy medium in Sing Faster. We are witness to several situations that require an immediate fix or rapid-fire resolution. But we never get the circumstances, either before or after the emergency to help us comprehend the crisis. Maybe we are just supposed to assume that this is business as usual for a stage crew. But without understanding how HARD something is to achieve, when won't really marvel at how well it's accomplished. This is the biggest flaw in Sing Faster: the complete lack of context.
Perhaps the single best sequence in this symposium to shortchanging is the final 60 seconds, a collection of time lapse vignettes that show us the entire 17 hours of The Ring Cycle in rapid fire, fascinating succession. As each set arrives in all its regal splendor, all the time, effort and preparation that went into their creation pays off in a stunning visual delight. And had Sing Faster better prepared us for this amazing montage, the transcendent moment would have been more than complete. Unfortunately, we have the exact opposite reaction. We begin to question the relevance of all we've seen before: the card games, the gossip, the perplexed look on the faces of workmen as the performers sing their hearts – and lungs – out. Just like the occasional voice-overs where a bearded hobbit of a handyman tells us parts of The Ring Cycle's complex narrative (usually to the resounding "Huh?" of his fellow workers), we wonder why we are being given certain pieces of information while having many, more substantive portions, left out. Like an impressionist painter, Jon Else must have seen his job as a provider of essence, not essentials. Maybe we are supposed to get the feel, not the blueprints, for how The Ring Cycle is approached as a production. Or possibly this is just the briefest of sketches, an outline for a far deeper examination of the art of the theater. Whatever the true intent, Sing Faster fails to live up to it time and time again.
While not completely boring or without merit, Sing Faster is in no way definitive to its subject matter. It can be entertaining (as when the initial rehearsals are stalled when the Maestro can't make up his mind what he wants to do first), engaging (the systematic ritual the stagehands go through to change the rubber flooring) or evasive (a member of the cast starts hanging around the main technician in the show for no explainable reason – she's just always there). We do see some of the particulars of performance (how oxygen must be placed backstage so that the singers have air to combat the Co2 fog) and see a snafu or two (the dragon "malfunctions"). But Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle doesn't highlight or do justice to either of the topics it wants to celebrate. Like it or loathe it, but Wagner's work is one of the traditional monoliths of the musical stage. To take on the challenge and succeed is to climb the Everest of opera. Equally significant is the input of technicians and craftsman, all whom have to bring these legendary legions to life. And while we see some of the surface evidence of both skill positions, the treatment is mostly timid. Sing Faster should have focused on a single facet of the production and followed it through from beginning to end. Better yet, it could have taken the narrative of the opus itself and used it as a theme to crosscut with the predicament facing the artisans. Instead, we get a vague, mildly amusing look at how workers pass the time in between setups. And while this does have its elements of interest, it pales in comparison to the chaos reigning all around. Sing Faster should have been better. It had everything going for it – except a clear vision of what it wanted to accomplish.