If you think of “bigger than life,” you might not imagine the petite octogenarian with the large glasses and a lace-trimmed collar. But then, you might not select an Associate Supreme Court Justice of the United States for that category either. If you choose to ignore Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you do so at your own peril, as there are many times when she’s the largest person in the room. This happens most often when there is a case before the court involving sex- or gender-based discrimination.
Sometimes referred to as the Notorious RBG, this diminutive figure looms large in the history of the United States during the last 50 or so years. Even before being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she had been appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Until then, RBG was a professor of law at various universities. Married with one child, that position had been thought inaccessible to a woman. But she’d already crossed that bridge in 1963 when she became a professor at Rutgers. Nine years later, she’d added a son to her family and moved her career to Columbia University.
Now that son, James, founder and owner of Chicago-based recording company Cedille, and his gifted composer/actress/singer wife Patrice Michaels, have created an evening of song celebrating the life and times of Notorious RBG in Song. It was performed this past week at Cleveland State University.
The seed for the show was planted by a most excellent idea — to create an 80th birthday gift of three songs by women composers using texts from letters written to RBG at various times in her life. From there, the idea grew into a full-length (75 minutes, no intermission) tribute in words and music. And it’s still growing — there will soon be a performance with chamber orchestra (instead of piano) and a mixed quartet of solo singers. The CD of the original version is available from several sources, including directly from cedillerecords.org
The words of three well-known American poets are enhanced by their musical accompaniment: Wider Than The Sky by Emily Dickinson was originally set by Lori Laitman as a gift to her mother-in-law. Lady of the Harbor by Emma Lazarus was the choice of Lee Hoiby, while the Litany from Shadow of the Blues by Cleveland’s own Langston Hughes was used by John Musto.
One section Dissenter of de Universe comprises dissenting opinions rendered by RGB, set to music by Ms. Michaels and read here by Lee Fisher, dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. These opinions and a short (sometimes pithy) comment by RBG covered affirmative action (2003), pay discrimination, voting rights, yet another affirmative action from 2013 and finally contraceptive coverage (or not) based on the religion of the company’s owners.
Eight of the remaining ten selections were primarily based on letters to RBG from her husband Martin, father-in-law Morris and mother Celia. These are all witty, poignant and exceedingly loving. Especially My Dearest Ruth, the last such letter from her husband as he lay dying in a hospital and found after his death, set to music by Stacy Garrop. Unless otherwise indicated all other music was composed by Ms. Michaels.
Daughter Jane contributed one line from a remembered conversation with a friend’s mother when she was six, which resulted in Be Nice to Jane: Her Mommy Works in New York, 1961. Jane also contributed the Pot Roast Recipe, (set to music by Vivian Fung); The Elevator Thief is the humorous re-telling of an episode in the life of young James, who, asa third-grader, stole an elevator for a one-floor expedition. It was this adventure that resulted in his school being informed that as he had two parents, it would be helpful if parental duties could be evenly distributed between them!
Anita’s Story came from Anita Escudero, employed as a typist in Martin Ginsburg’s office, who could not quite comprehend “sexual discrimination” and/or gender-based discrimination.
Prologue is based on the 1943 lament by former Chief Justice about the lack of eligible women to be nominated to serve as law clerks for the justices. Epilogue is RBG’s response to the question; What qualities should a President seek in a Supreme Court Justice?
Pianist Angelin Chang (star of CSU’s music school) was the fabulous accompanist for the CSU performance, although sadly not on the CD. Chang was the first female pianist to receive a Grammy Award, for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with Orchestra) and her tremendous skill is on constant display due to the virtuoso writing. Not only is she professor of piano at CSU, but she is also a professor in the law school.
A Q & A session followed the performance with all four principals seated together on stage.