Over the years, moviegoers have seen Sigourney Weaver in space multiple times: the take-no-prisoners Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies, the busty actor-turned-Starfleet-communications-officer of Galaxy Quest, and her current reign as Dr. Grace Augustine on the blue world of Avatar.
On Monday night, April 26, in New York City, Weaver seemed closer to earth—and closer to her theatrical self as founder of the avant-garde Flea Theatre—in a brocaded full-length gown more appropriate to 1920 than 2010. She was there to perform in “Music Takes Flight–Airborne Symphonies,” a concert by the Little Orchestra Society of New York that celebrated America’s century-long romance with flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Space Shuttle.
At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Weaver led the audience through the confluence of war, peace, and popular culture that has made airplanes and spacecraft as American as the covered wagon.
She entered after the orchestra and the Orpheon Chorale had opened the evening with the Air Force’s anthem, “Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” with patriotic multimedia images assembled by designer Elliott Forrest. By the end of the program, those images would include many from the U.S. space program.
Even though Robert Cuccioli (of Broadway’s Jekyll and Hyde) was also on hand, acting out the roles of many historic fliers, we still found ourselves looking to the six-foot-tall Weaver as our guide, and thinking of the women in space we saluted last week.
Marc Blitzstein’s 1946 “Airborne Symphony,” the first major work of the evening, begins with a prehistory of flight, from academics dreaming of Icarus to tinkerers making kites out of pine. Blitzstein tells the story with words as well as music, using sung chants and dramatic narration, as he’d done in Depression-era operas like The Cradle Will Rock. In this context, as the New York Times observed in its review, those devices felt a bit awkward at times. But the images, Weaver’s calm narrative presence, and the strong musical performances kept the audience involved.
After prehistory came the stories of America’s first rock-star fliers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. One special guest in the audience: author Reeve Lindbergh, 65, daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Lindbergh and Earhart were the astronauts of their era in more ways than one. Cuccioli read aloud Gore Vidal’s description of these heroic fliers: “I have walked the streets with many famous people in my time, from Greta Garbo to Paul Newman to Eleanor Roosevelt. No one got the crowd that Amelia got. She was—I must say it was beyond stardom. It was a strange continuum that she and Lindbergh occupied. They were like gods from outer space.”
These ‘gods’ inspired music from German-born American Kurt Weill, who was moved by Lindbergh’s first flight to compose the rarely-performed Lindbergh Cantata—working with a young librettist named Bertolt Brecht, then tagged by Time magazine as “The German Kipling.” In 1929, however, Time was unimpressed by the young duo’s Lindbergh piece. “Childishly simple in conception, couched in free verse, the libretto wallows in German sentimental-realism. Fog, snow, the hum of the motor, the ships at sea are all personified.”
The reviewer was even less thrilled with Brecht’s use of snippets from Lindbergh interviews: My name is Charles Lindbergh/I am 25 years old/My grandfather was a Swede/My machine have I myself looked after/It flies 210 kilometers an hour/Its name is ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ But between Weaver and the high caliber of the performances, the audience was enthralled.
Weaver took the lead with Earhart. After a segment recounting her triumphal flights, her marriage, and her independent streak, came a dramatic reading of her final flight’s radio transmissions. A bit of Ripley crept into Weaver’s voice as Amelia kept requesting landing coordinates from a radio operator unable to hear her. KHAQQ calling Itasca we are circling but cannot hear you go ahead on 7500 with a long count either now or on the schedule time on 1/2 hour….KHAQQ calling Itasca we received your signals but unable to get a minimum. Please take bearing on us and answer 3105 with voice.
To lighten the mood after such somber moments, Weaver indulged her sillier, Ghostbusters/Galaxy Quest side, as when dancers Brian “Lucky” Skillen and Lisa Casper came on to perform a classic Lindy Hop. As the athletic couple swooped to demonstrate why the dance was named after Lindbergh, Weaver and Cuccinelli gamely danced beside them, before parting and laughing at themselves.
Weaver also helped out as the physical comedy continued after intermission. During Blitzstein’s “Hiya!” section of the Airborne Symphony—a riff on green trainee pilots—two young men portraying new bombardiers repeatedly suited up and stripped down, right to their red long johns, as the flight was ordered and canceled again and again. Weaver handed over some of the gear and smilingly stood back.
After the other, more poignant World War II segments—Blitzstein’s ‘Ballad of the Bombardier’ and two from Samuel Barber, including ‘Night Flight,’ with text by former bombardier Antoine de St. Exupery—the hall filled with images from the Hubble Telescope, which inspired contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis’s ‘Musica Celestis.’ Over Kernis’s music in the star-filled hall, Cuccioli read a congratulatory letter from pioneer astronaut and former Senator John Glenn “on this wonderful and important concert.”
But it was Weaver who declared a few moments later: “President Obama has just announced his commitment to the future of human-powered space travel. So men—and women,” she emphasized with a grin—“will travel to the far reaches of the galaxy.”
As the evening ended and the audience stood to leave, Weaver kept looking at the stars and newborn galaxies still projected around the hall: places she’s been to, in a way, on film—and perhaps, like us, imagining the women who may get there for real.