The Stars of Stage and Screen…Song #15/250: The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, Philadelphia.

These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.

The movie, Philadelphia, was released in the early 1990s. It starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as the two main characters. The soundtrack to the movie contained original work by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. That so many heavy hitters from their respective industries were involved in this movie project speaks to the larger intent behind which the movie was made in the first place. Director Jonathan Demme wanted to make a movie that would take a ground-level look at the AIDS crisis in America. Demme knew that the story of a Gay man dying of AIDS would be a tough sell for certain segments of the population so he enlisted people to support his project such as Springsteen, Washington, Young and Hanks who, he felt, would be a big enough draw based on name recognition alone to reach as broad an audience with his message as possible. That message included important information about how AIDS was actually transmitted and how much homophobia came into play in further exacerbating this painful life experience for so many Americans. Philadelphia went on to be nominated for several Academy Awards including wins for Best Actor for Hanks and Best Song for Springsteen.

The plot of Philadelphia unfolds just as the AIDS epidemic had begun to play out in America. In the 1980s, AIDS was sweeping through the US. It was a disease that was considered by some as God’s punishment against homosexuals because, for the most part, those who were contracting AIDS were Gay men. As such, in addition to the fear of an unknown disease that many Americans faced, there was the added element of homophobia that was thrown into the mix. The result of this was that those who contracted AIDS suffered physically, as the disease ravaged their bodies but, as well, they suffered emotionally and mentally due to a campaign of ostracization that took place all across the US. For many AIDS patients, during a time in their lives when they were most in need of compassion and companionship, many found themselves the object of panic and disgust. In the end, many AIDS patients died alone and lonely.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in a court scene from the movie, Philadelphia.

In the movie, Tom Hanks played a young Gay lawyer who contracts AIDS. All throughout this career at the law firm he was working at, he hid his sexual orientation from his employers and colleagues. Then, one day a lesion appears on his forehead. A colleague accuses Hanks of having AIDS because he associated the one lesion with the disease. Not long after this incident at work, Hanks is fired for “incompetence”. Hanks believes he was fired because of his sexual orientation and because of AIDS so he decides to sue the law firm for wrongful dismissal. As Hanks begins assembling his court case, we begin to see some of the obstacles that AIDS patients faced at the time. For starters, no lawyer is willing to take on his case because they are all afraid of catching AIDS just by being with him. Hanks eventually asks Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow lawyer, for help. Washington refuses because he is fearful of getting too close. But then, a few days later, Washington sees Hanks in a law library as he attempts to conduct some research into his case. Washington watches as those around Hanks all move away from him and how Hanks is urged to work in an isolated room, away from public view. Denzel Washington’s character recognizes discrimination at play because he, himself, had experienced it as a black man in America. So, Denzel Washington agrees to represent Hanks in his suit. Needless to say, the journey of discovery that Denzel Washington takes as he learns about how AIDS is actually transmitted is the journey of discovery that Director Jonathan Demme was hoping all of America would take. In the end, Washington and Hanks become close friends and we all get to see the humanity at play as Tom Hanks progresses through the various stages of this terrible disease. Humanizing Aids sufferers, helping to destigmatize those who contracted AIDS, as well as homosexuality, in general were all part of why Philadelphia was made in the first place.

Bruce Springsteen walks alone through the streets of Philadelphia in the video that opened the movie.

The soundtrack to this movie is stellar. In addition to the songs written by Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, there is music from Peter Gabriel, Sade, Indigo Girls, Maria Callas and even one hit wonders, The Spin Doctors! As with most movies, the music involved adds another layer of meaning to the story. In the specific case of the Bruce Springtsteen song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”, the story is that Demme asked Springsteen to contribute a song that would act as the opening of the film. At first, Springsteen was reluctant to do so because he had not had much experience scoring films but he agreed to at least give it a try. Springsteen’s version of a try was the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”. In this song, Springsteen casts himself in the role of the AIDS sufferer. He describes the effects of AIDS on his body…how his clothes don’t fit him anymore because he is losing weight, how his appearance is changing and, as a result, is making him “unrecognizable to himself” but mostly, Springsteen describes how alone he feels as the rest of society distances itself from him in his hour of greatest need. Demme is on record as saying that when Springsteen submitted his “rough draft” of the song, he and his wife listened to it and cried. That rough draft was kept and is the track that was recorded and put onto the film’s soundtrack album. Not only did Bruce Springsteen win the Academy Award for Best Song but, “The Streets of Philadelphia” also won four Grammy Awards for Springsteen, too.

Princess Diana shakes hands with an unidentified AIDS patient in what turned out to be one of the most important and influential images ever in the battle against the disease of AIDS.

If you have seen Philadelphia then you know that it is a movie that is not easy to watch all of the way through. But, sometimes it is important for the general public to be asked to keep watching and to not turn away. As unpleasant as the death process can be and as ugly as racism and homophobia can also be, if we are ever to become a more empathetic and tolerant society then, watching movies such as Philadelphia is a must. There are many who point to Philadelphia as a turning point in the public battle against AIDS. After watching such respected actors as Hanks and Washington on screen and listening to such respected musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, the tone of the public discourse surrounding AIDS changed for the better. AIDS victims were less isolated and feared, it became easier to raise much needed funds for research and it suddenly became a badge of honour to participate in AIDS marches and to wear “ribbons” of support while in public. But, as we know, there are diseases of the medical kind and diseases of the spiritual kind and the battle remains ongoing. Sometimes, the most important direct action we can take is to be brave and not look away.

The link to the video for the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Philadelphia” by Neil Young can be found here.

***This song plays over the closing scene in the movie which is the wake of Tom Hanks’ character. For my money, this is one of the best closing scenes of any movie. I always bawl whenever I watch it. It is devastating! Neil Young’s haunting song is perfect.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie, Philadelphia can be found here.

For more information about ongoing efforts to cure Aids in Canada, the link to the official website for Canadian AIDS Society can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post can be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Stars of Stage and Screen: The Stories Behind the Greatest Songs from Movies and Musicals…Song #7/250: Seasons of Love from the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Musical, Rent.

In 1896, opera lovers gathered at the Paris Opera House for the debut of an opera that was destined to become one of the most popular and performed operas of all time. That opera was La Bohème. It was composed by Giacomo Puccini. La Bohème was set in Paris and followed the exploits of several characters who were judged to have been living bohemian lifestyles. The lives these characters were leading were fraught with difficulties and dangers, but their love for life lent an air of purity to their pursuit of happiness and self-actualization. At the time, much of Europe was under threat from a disease called tuberculosis. In La Bohème, tuberculosis would cast a pall over the lives of those being enacted on stage. La Bohème was well received by Parisans and is regarded as one of Puccini’s greatest works. Since its debut, his opera has been performed all over the world and watched by hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. One of those fans was an American playwright named Billy Aronson who watched La Bohème in 1988. As he sat watching the story of carefree twenty-somethings in Paris living freely but struggling to pay their rent and avoid catching TB, Aronson was struck with how similar those times were to the ones he and his friends were living in now in New York City during the AIDS crisis. So, Aronson left the performance of La Bohème determined to create a modern adaptation of it. He approached his friend, Jonathan Larson, who was a songwriter and pitched the idea to him. Larson climbed on board immediately. Larson, who lived in Greenwich Village near the epi-center of AIDS outbreaks in the 1980s, agreed that there was definitely a story waiting to be told. After a period of collaboration that created a skeletal outline of a play, Larson asked Aronson if he could take the developmental lead because he had an idea to turn La Bohème into a rock opera. Aronson agreed in return for a percentage of future profits and formal recognition of his foundational role in the project. From there, Larson composed dozens and dozens of songs; eventually whittling it down to a suitable number, and just like that, a modern day version of the centuries old opera La Bohème emerged in the form of a musical called Rent.

Jonathan Larson.

Rent will forever be remembered as much for the circumstances of its debut as it ever has for the quality of its performances and that is really saying something because Rent has gone on to be one of the most highly recognized Broadway shows of all time. It took several years for Larson to complete his musical score, finalize the script and raise the necessary financing in order to mount his production. However, by late 1995, everything had seemingly fallen into place and pre-production began. The show was scheduled to make its off-Broadway debut in January of 1996. The date of that scheduled opening was deliberate because it would have been almost a full century, to the very day, that La Bohème had made its debut in Paris. But unbeknownst to everyone involved in the project, including Larson himself, tragedy was waiting silently for Larson in the wings. On the very eve of the debut of Rent in New York City, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. Apparently, he had been carrying a non-AIDS-related disease called Marfan Syndrome which makes the blood vessels near the heart susceptible to leakage and/or rupture. Needless to say, the news of Larson’s death on the eve of what would become his greatest artistic triumph, was a devastating tragedy. Although those involved in Rent were shocked by the death of Larson, the musical’s champion, they followed the old adage that the show must still go on. However, instead of performing the musical as was intended, the cast gathered on stage and engaged in a sing-along with the audience in Larson’s memory. The song that touched people the most that night was called “Seasons of Love”.

The Rent cast sing “Seasons of Love”.

In a typical performance of Rent, “Seasons of Love” opens Act II. By this time in the musical, the audience will have met all of the characters and know of their struggles and their dreams. They will also know of the spectre of the AIDS virus which looms over the entire play like its own evil character. “Seasons of Love” serves to remind the audience of what has happened and then to prepare them for what is to follow. The song starts out by describing how to measure time in units of one year. It then poses the question as to how one would make use of that time if that time was all that you had left to live. How does one measure the worth of one year in a situation such as those who have contracted AIDS? Well, according to the song, you measure that year in units of Love. I have always firmly believed that Love is the very best aspect of Life and that it is the most powerful force in our world. Larson seems to have felt the same way. Rent resonates so strongly with so many people because his core idea embedded all throughout the musical is one that highlights the importance and power of hearts filled with Love. It is not surprising that “Seasons of Love” has become the official anthem of World AIDS Day.

Andrew Garfield discusses the nature of Grief with Stephen Colbert.

In the links below, I will obviously include a performance of “Seasons of Love” by the Broadway cast, along with a link to the website for Rent. But, I will also include a link to an interview that aired a year or so ago on the Stephen Colbert TV show at the height of the COVID pandemic. The video will show an interview that Colbert conducted with an actor named Andrew Garfield. At the time, Garfield was starring in a Netflix production called Tick, Tick, Boom! This production was one of many that Jonathan Larson had a hand in developing. Before Rent came to be realized, Larson worked as a waiter in order to make ends meet. In between shifts, he wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs that have ended up becoming parts of many other projects over the years, with Rent and Tick, Tick, Boom! being the most well known. In this interview, Garfield retells the story of Jonathan Larson and then concludes with a similar story from his own life. It is as poignant and intelligent an interview as one gets to bear witness to in this day and age. I highly recommend to each of you who read this post that you set aside a few minutes and watch Garfield and Colbert talk about the fragility of Life and the importance of Love. It will fill your heart; I guarantee it.

The link to the video for the song “Seasons of Love” from the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Musical Rent can be found here.

The link to the official website for the musical Rent can be found here.

The link to the official website for World AIDS Day can be found here.

The link to the video for the interview between Andrew Garfield and Stephen Colbert can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this blog post is the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022