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Ken Bloom

Producer & Historian

Ken Bloom is a leading authority on American popular song and musical theatre. His books American Song, Hollywood Song, and Tin Pan Alley are seminal works, documenting over 300,000 songs.

His Broadway: An Encyclopedic Guide to the History, People and Places of Times Square was named one of the top reference books of the year by The New York Times and has recently come out in an updated third edition. His Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, written with Frank Vlastnik, won the American Library Association’s prestigious George Freedley Memorial Award.

Bloom's newest book, Show and Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes, was released by Oxford University Press earlier this fall.

In addition to his work as a writer, Bloom has served as on-air talent for outlets as diverse as Sirius Satellite Radio, WKCR-FM, NPR, and the CBC. Ken also co-founded, with Bill Rudman, the 33-year-old Harbinger Records. For the label Ken has produced more than fifty albums, including the Grammy-nominated Maxine Sullivan Sings Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

Apr
13

Rodgers and Hammerstein

Here’s the greatest team in musical theatre history. Their shows are still performed throughout the world and they’ve been embraced by generations and transcend time.

So, let’s take a look at their recorded legacy.

Oklahoma! was the first out of the gate and it was just as big a success as Hamilton today.

Jack Kapp at Decca decided to record the show in what some people call the first American original cast album. (The British were recording cast albums decades before we were). I’ve always thought that no revival cast has ever equaled an original cast. And with Oklahoma! that’s certainly true. The cast album itself suffers from the limitations of sound recording at the time. But the performances are exemplary. That album wasn’t quite complete. The songs “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” “Lonely Room,” “The Farmer and the Cowman,” and the “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” ballet were not recorded. But the album was such a big hit Decca then recorded three of the songs not included on the original album, “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” “Lonely Room,” and “The Farmer and the Cowman.”

There’s many, many more recordings of the score including London casts, Broadway revivals, touring companies, and studio casts but while their fidelity might be better they can’t equal the original.

Another classic musical, Carousel, now given a bowdlerized revival on Broadway, proved that Broadway lightning could strike twice. And Decca grabbed it for recording. Again, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cast was impeccable with John Raitt and Jan Clayton in their career highs. The album cut out some of the dance music and one song, “Geraniums in the Winder.” The sound is a little bit better than that of Oklahoma! but hi-fidelity and recording tape were still a ways off. Still, it’s the best of all the following cast albums.

There’s the London cast with Stephen Douglas (who had done a national tour and was in the 1949 City Center revival). If you think John Raitt was a stiff he was practically Nijinsky when compared to Stephen Douglas. And John Raitt, owner of perhaps the greatest, most versatile Broadway voice of all time, could really act a song. And Iva Withers’ performance at the Drury Lane can’t match the vulnerability or winsome qualities of Jan Clayton.

The 20th Century-Fox soundtrack features Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow. MacRae has a wonderful voice and was excellent as Curly in the film version of Oklahoma! but Bigelow needs to have a dark side and MacRae just doesn’t have it. Fox’s film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel are wonderful but the performances just don’t surpass the originals. However, Alfred Newman’s conducting of the magnificent 20th Century-Fox Orchestra is overwhelmingly beautiful.

Now our fair lads were ready for some experimentation. Note that their previous musicals broke many tropes but they went all out with Allegro. They took their chances and though the show ran for 315 performances (based mostly on the advance sale) it wasn’t an artistic success. Well, that is at the time it wasn’t thought to be. Remember, the world was used to the exotic locales of R&H shows (yes, even Oklahoma!) and real drama. Allegro was a different kind of show. Without social commentary or big moments, and with a Greek chorus commenting on the action, it was too much for the postwar audiences to grasp.

Not helping things at all was the original cast recording. There were a few reasons for that. One, RCA got into the game and did a less than stellar job. If you recall, RCA cast albums were short. Very short. Some were as short as one-half hour! And Allegro is just shy of forty minutes by my unscientific count. Two, no stars. The leads were John Battles and Annamary Dickey and while they were very talented their personalities didn’t make it onto the recordings. And finally, no hit songs really. “The Gentleman is a Dope,” “You Are Never Alone,” and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” didn’t make it onto the Hit Parade.

It’s telling that there was no soundtrack since there was no film. No touring cast recordings. No London cast recordings since there was no London cast.

But wait!! A miracle occurred! In 2009, Masterworks Broadway issued a complete recording with such stars as Audra McDonald, Patrick Wilson, Marni Nixon, Liz Callaway, Laura Benanti, and Norbert Leo Butz. Oh, and the brilliant Larry Blank as conductor. Allegro was rediscovered. And once the songs can be heard within their original context the show becomes close to a revelation. We understand the shock of 1947 audiences sitting in the Majestic Theatre but have a listen to this terrific recording.

South Pacific was the follow-up and it too was a smash hit.

Columbia recorded the original cast recording and it’s the one to beat. There was never a pairing of romantic leads equal to that of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Not only because of their singing but their opposite personas perfectly matched both in the plot and also musically. Note: “This Is How It Feels” the answer to “Wonder How It Feels” was not recorded but no one misses it. That album was a smash hit so, of course, others followed.

RCA wanted to get in the game and they recorded the two understudies to the original stars, Dickinson Eastham and Sandra Deel. Has that ever happened before or since?

And the soundtrack of the hit movie features Mitzi Gaynor in the lead. She’s a little too showbiz to play a girl as corny as Kansas in August. And the rest of the recording consists of a whole bunch of people who dubbed for the actors. Rossano Brazzi was dubbed by the great Georgio Tozzi. And John Kerr, dreamy in the role of Cable, was dubbed by Bill Lee. Even secondary characters were dubbed including Thurl Ravenscroft (best known for How the Grinch Stole Christmas) dubbed Ken Clark, Marie Greene dubbed Candice Lee, and Betty Wand—queen of the demo artists—dubbed Warren Hsieh in a neat trick of sexual fluidity. But the most egregious dubbing was Muriel Smith dubbing for Juanita Hall who was the original Bloody Mary on Broadway and got no complaints about her singing!

Three smash hits (and Allegro). R&H went back to what they did best with The King and I they again had a smash hit.

As far as the cast album (back to Decca) is concerned we’re in a little shakier ground. By all accounts Gertrude Lawrence was brilliant as Anna Leonowens, radiant on stage. But her singing is technically lacking. Plus she was growing ill during the run of the show. Still, some would argue that her acting of the songs trumps that of the limitations of her voice. I agree. Of course, Yul Brynner is brilliant and there are no better Broadway voices than Dorothy Sarnoff and Doretta Morrow. Larry Douglas is also terrific. The Decca sound isn’t as good at Columbia got on South Pacific but it’s an eminently listenable recording. And the cast is superb.

Gotta say that the Fox soundtrack with Marni Nixon’s masterly dubbing of Deborah Karr and those fantastic arrangements played in their stereo majesty by Alfred Newman is a glory to listen to. It’s a tossup between this and the cast album for just listening enjoyment.

In 1953, it was back to RCA and Me and Juliet.

Almost 400 performances at the Majestic Theatre but can you name one song from the score? “Big Black Giant,” “That’s the Way It Happens,” “Keep It Gay?” The hit song from the score was “No Other Love” which was based on a theme Rodgers wrote for the TV documentary series, Victory at Sea. Yes, the album is not the greatest but there’s a lot to enjoy. The songs are good if not great and the overall feeling one gets upon listening is having had a good, undemanding, relaxing time with two songwriters who know what they’re doing. And trust me, that’s enough nowadays.

Pipe Dream. Two years after Me and Juliet the boys opened what would be their least successful musical. The book is what sinks the show. We won’t go into that now.

Yet again a short RCA original cast recording. Helen Traubel is a lot of fun and both Bill Johnson and the star-crossed Judy Tyler do very well in their roles. The songs like “All Kinds of People,” “The Man I Used to Be,” and “All at Once You Love Her” are sweet songs and really, could R&H write a bad song. Well, maybe but these aren’t.

Amazingly. Astoundingly, City Center Encores! mounted a concert version and, lo and behold, it begat a recording!! Will Chase, Laura Osnes, and Tom Wopat do well by the material. And Leslie Uggams shows up too which is always a plus. Given that it’s a live recording in excellent fidelity it’s a lot easier to listen to than the original cast recording. Give it a try.

Following the television version of Cinderella with Julie Andrews, Broadway was treated to Flower Drum Song. A much better score than some of their other recent outings, this show had one big hit, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” which was enthusiastically sung by Pat Suzuki. A strong cast including Larry Blyden, Miyoshi Umeki, and Juanita Hall make the material lots of fun to listen to on the Columbia album, which is very well recorded.

There’s a London cast and a film soundtrack. In the film, many of the original cast recreate their roles and Alfred Newman elevates the music. Of course, films have greatly enlarged numbers in their midst and even when cast albums add instruments for their recordings (which happens more often than you think) they can’t hold a candle to a huge Hollywood orchestra.  Though Columbia issued the OCR it was Decca who grabbed the soundtrack.

And so we come to the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway.

Wait, I seem to remember there’s one last show. A small, little regarded outing that took place somewhere in the Alps.

Ah, yes! The Sound of Music! Heard of it? Well, here was the Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster to beat all their blockbusters. Not on Broadway mind you where it ran 1,443 glorious performances, a great record for the time. But on the big screen. The film version of The Sound of Music, which eventually sold almost 300 million dollars in tickets! Unfortunately, Oscar Hammerstein passed away in 1960 shortly after the original stage production opened.

So, how does the Original Cast Album stack up to the film soundtrack (we’ll ignore the Broadway revivals (ugh!), London companies, and studio casts)? It’s hard to chose. Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel are the real thing. Martin has the simplicity and vulnerability that goes with the role of Maria. Julie Andrews has more of a hard edge though her acting and singing are practically faultless. The original cast overall is excellent and the film is just more so. Much more so. Much much more so. They’re both terrific in their own ways.

So, with four genuine classics including one megahit, why aren’t Rodgers and Hammerstein better regarded? They’ve had more productions, large and small, of their shows. Their shows have real edge (Yes! They do!). People die in their shows. There’s real emotions in their plots and songs.

Have a Rodgers and Hammerstein holiday the next time you’ve got a few hours free and I guarantee you’ll have a swell time and, if you’re open enough, an emotional few hours.

 

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Mar
30

April Fool's Day

No, there won’t be any surprise at the end of this column. No ‘I gotcha’ moment that all April Fool’s Day tricksters seem to relish. Rather, this is an admittedly personal look at who are the funniest lyricists. It’s not enough to just write amusing turns of phrase rather the greater skill of actually incorporating jokes into the lyrics. So, here’s my thoughts.

I think there’s four American lyricists who can actually write jokes into their lyrics. But first here’s my list of runners-up. Of course, many of you will disagree and that’s the fun of it.

E.Y. Harburg – Harburg’s wordplay is his most amusing, surprising, whimsical and delightful trait. But he really elicited warm smiles and appreciation rather than laughter. (Just take a listen to Finian’s Rainbow, for instance.)

Though Cole Porter could be arch and witty and although he could really write humorous lyric it depended a lot on characters and sometimes the juxtaposition of the highbrow society with low humor. (“Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in Kiss Me, Kate, anybody?)

Ira Gershwin wrote wonderfully about the joys and pains of falling in and out of love. Songs like “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (in Porgy & Bess) are character songs  and although they’re often quirky they aren’t always funny in a joking way.

Oscar Hammerstein is the most gentle of lyricists. In fact, lyricism, often poetic in nature is his strong suit. He excelled at making regular people say the most incisive and beautifully phrased expressions. He made everyone a philosopher. Think about “Maria” in The Sound of Music. A very humorous list song but not really funny.

So, here’s my list of the funniest lyricists for the American Musical Theatre:

Leo Robin. His lyrics for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and for The Girl in Pink Tights have actual jokes in them. Meaning a set-up followed by a punch line. The former has “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s a very funny song with lots of jokes that also are true to the character of Lorelei Lee. And the neglected score for The Girl in Pink Tights with music by Sigmund Romberg has several numbers full of jokes. “I Promised Their Mothers” and that paean to show business, “You’ve Got to Be a Little Crazy”  are masterful creations that have plenty of wit and surprise.

Dorothy Fields. Along with Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy Fields wrote some of the funniest, character driven songs in musical theatre history. Take a listen to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the underrated By the Beautiful Sea to see just what I mean. “He Had Refinement” owes a lot to Shirley Booth’s exquisite acting and timing but it sets up the joke and then slams the laugh over the footlights to the farthest seat in the theatre. Likewise, “I’d Rather Wake Up By Myself” is another song true to the moment and the character. And here’s Shirley Booth again inspiring Schwartz and Fields.

I know you’ve been waiting for Stephen Sondheim to make the list and of course he does. A Funny Thing and his one contribution to The Mad Show (albeit under a sort of pseudonym—Estaban Rio Nido) are hilarious. Sondheim has it both ways. He amazes us with his craft as well as his immense talents while also keeping us within the farce of Funny Thing. That’s a really difficult thing to pull off.

Those are my three choices. Marshall Barer from Once Upon a Mattress came close as well as a few others. But the whole point is in these perilous times we can all use all the laughs we can get. And that’s why we love the American musical.

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Mar
16

The Irish, the Musicals

The Irish have always had a strong theatrical tradition in their lives and in their theatre. And during the great Irish migration at the turn of the 19th Century they brought their dramatic traditions with them.

But even before then and later, soon, after the end of the Civil War, the Irish took a foothold in the American theatre.

Dion Boucicault’s play Arrah-Na-Pogue premiered in 1865, 1869, and 1903. Though it was a play it did have interpolated songs by Andrew Mack as composer and lyricist with Boucicault himself writing the occasional lyric. But this was really a play with music though it was the first stirrings of how songs could be integrated into a drama.

Among the first and greatest of Irish dramatists and performers were the team of Harrigan and Hart. Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart were born in New York and Massachusetts respectively, and their early musical comedies celebrated life in the tenements of the Lower Manhattan. Together with the London-born composer Edward Braham, Harrigan (writer of the book and lyrics) created the beginnings of musical theatre. In 1873, they wrote the song “The Mulligan Guard” which would later form the basis of a series of Mulligan musicals, beginning with The Mulligan Guards Picnic in 1878 and followed it with 16 more musicals in only seven years (a couple of the songs from these can be heard on Don’t Give the Place a Bad Name). It’s important to note that the shows featured characters who were Irish and German immigrants as well as Black characters. Hart died 1891, only 36-years-old. Edward Harrigan went on to write plays and musicals and performed in them until his death in 1911. In 1985 a musical was presented on Broadway, Harrigan ‘n Hart but it was a fast failure.

1906 saw the debut of Charles E. Blaney’s musical Mr. Blarney from Ireland with songs by Fiske O’Hara. But five years before that, Providence born Irish-Catholic George M. Cohan wrote his first musical comedy, The Governor’s Son. Book, music and lyrics were by Cohan, and he was featured in the show along with his parents and sister. Cohan’s shows, including his best-known one, Little Johnny Jones, celebrated Irish Americans and continued the refinement of Broadway musical comedy that had began with Harrigan and Hart. Cohan wrote, produced and starred in over 50 plays and musicals and wrote many popular songs including his most famous song, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Or is the most famous, “Over Here?” Or… well so great was his success it’s difficult of name just one song as his best. Cohan fared better than Harrigan and Hart with a musical based on his career, George M!

Victor Herbert, the great Irish-born composer wrote his paean to Ireland with Eileen written with lyrics by Henry Blossom. Based on the Irish Rebellion of 1875, this comic-opera was a fast failure mainly because of Blossom’s libretto. But its score contains many riches.

More recent musicals with ties to Ireland include those based on great works of Irish theatre.

J. Hartley Manners’ 1912 play Peg o’ My Heart inspired a popular song of the same title by Fred Fisher and Alfred Bryan. It was interpolated into the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913 and became a huge success. The play itself was adapted into the 1984 British musical Peg (not to be confused with Peggy Lee’s one-woman show) with a score by David Heneker. It never came to Broadway.

A fish out of water plot is often a success. And the 1919 musical Irene by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy was a gigantic success playing 675 performances—a  remarkable run then (and even now). The future standard “Alice Blue Gown” was the hit of the show. The title character is an Irish immigrant who arrives in New York and has a brush with high society. The show was revived in 1973 starring Debbie Reynolds. And a London revival in 1976 ran almost 1,000 performances.

Sean O’Casey’s classic Juno and the Paycock was developed into Marc Blitzstein’s 1959 musical Juno. Despite a wonderful score, the show was closed after only 16 performances. But the Columbia recording of the score has brought it newfound respect.

The greatest of all Irish-themed musicals is 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow featuring a brilliant score by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg. The totally original book by Harburg and Fred Saidy is a delight, and the cast album with David Wayne and Ella Logan is a joy from start to finish. No wonder the show has become a true classic.

Charles O'Neal's 1949 novel The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin became Three Wishes for Jamie in 1952 with a score by Ralph Blane. Jamie is granted three wishes by the Queen of the Fairies. Unfortunately, he didn’t wish the musical be a success, and it closed after only 92 performances. The show was in trouble from the start and the whimsy that supported Finian’s Rainbow made Jamie a pale imitation.

Happy as Larry by Mischa and Wesley Portnoff and book and lyrics by Donagh MacDonagh was a three performance flop in 1950.

We all know about shows with excellent scores and so-so libretti. And 1959’s Donnybrook! is one such musical. Johnny Burke wrote the totally charming score, but Robert E. McEnroe’s book, based on Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, is a letdown. The production lasted only 68 performances. Lucky for us the original cast album has recently been released on CD.

Here’s a famous or infamous failure, Kelly from 1965. Moose Charlap and Eddie Lawrence wrote a terrific score for this legendary flop that played only one performance. The whole sordid history of this one performance disaster was told in a Saturday Evening Post article that laid all how everything that could go wrong with a musical went wrong. But the score is strong with many fine songs.

John Millington Synge’s 1907 drama The Playboy of the Western World was adapted into the musical Christy (1975) had music by Larry Blank and lyrics by Bernie Spiro. The less said the better.

2002’s A Man of No Importance was based on the film of the same name. Despite a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrence McNally, the show only played its initial run at Lincoln Center. It followed a theatre troupe in Ireland that wishes to produce a play based on “Salome.”

2012’s Once was an audience pleaser running over 1,000 performances. It followed the success of the film of the same name that was also a sleeper hit. The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova filled out the songs they wrote for the original film. It was a great hit with audience members, especially those who went on stage before the show started to have a beer from the show’s pub set.

The Irish have contributed mightily to Broadway for over 100 years of musical theatre. They were there at the beginning and continue to have an influence on today’s theatre scene.

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Mar
02

Revues

What the heck is a revue? Nowadays the lines between a revue and a full-fledged musical have been blurred.

The first revues came out of vaudeville and music hall where a series of acts with no relation to each other performed on the same stage during one performance. Acts could come and go at will. In France, that evolved into a more unified evening of acts with original songs and sketches written especially for the single show that had a continuous run and an identity like the Folies Bergere. Florenz Ziegfeld picked up the idea in 1907 with the first edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Other reviews followed on Broadway the most important of which were The George White Scandals and the Earl Carroll Vanities. There were also the Shubert produced revues at the Winter Garden Theatre and late in the 1920s small off-Broadway styled revues including the Garrick Gaieties. For these shows the idea of one single set of songwriters, Irving Berlin for instance, contributed all the songs and one set of writers all the sketches.

The art form probably reached its apogee with The Band Wagon with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. (Many of the songs from this show were later repurposed into a story created for the movie of the same title.)

Revues in that style continued up to the 1950s with the Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green show, Two on the Aisle. There continued to the occasional revue but they were fading in popularity.

Then in the 1960s, came a new kind of revue, one that concentrated on a single songwriter’s oeuvre. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris made the biggest splash. Gone were large casts, multi scenes, sketches and usually a unit set. Jacques Brel unleashed a torrent of songwriter reviews on and off Broadway. They weren’t very theatrical. Perhaps there was a chorus, most often not. And there might have been a little narration but most often not. And there was no particular thru line. In fact, the songs could be shuffled to no discernable effect. In essence, they were staged radio. You could close your eyes and not miss a thing.

Now the line continued to blur. Think of Cats. It’s basically a musical revue of T.S. Eliot’s poems but with the performers acting as characters and the slimmest of plots. At heart though, it’s basically a revue. There were very, very few exceptions. Chief among them was Sugar Babies, which aimed to revive the burlesque revues. And it was very, very successful.

Today there’s very few revues. For one thing we no longer have songwriters with enough range to write a series of songs that are by turn sad, comic, witty, etc. And we don’t have that many personalities that can grab an audience like the old stars could. We have good singers and good dancers, but there’s very, very few true stars on Broadway. If you want to see a current revue you might want to look at Saturday Night Live which still retains the revue format but mostly without original songs.

Will the revue come back? Only time will tell.

 

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Feb
16

Away This Week...

This week is all about being charitable. Because Ken's got a billion things right now (finishing work on a major documentary and writing a new book) he's got the week off. His column will return on March 2.

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Feb
02

Aspects of Love Songs

Love, the emotion, is the most written about emotion in popular song. 99% of musicals revolve about love in one way or another (yes, even Hamilton—love of country, Lin-Manuel’s love and admiration of Alexander Hamilton, and even the characters falling in love with each others, and maybe, just maybe Hamilton’s love affair with himself). It’s difficult to separate love from pride.

Anyway, I was thinking about people’s love for everything other than their fellow humans. And musical theater, which we all know has lessons on everything in our lives, has an abundance of songs about love.

First on my list is Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Ice Cream” from the delectable She Loves Me. Is there any more earnest and beautiful a love song? I don’t think so. And Barbara Cook sings it wonderfully. The great thing about her as a singer is she sang the lyrics with her gorgeous voice. Other singers sing the notes and not the words and that’s a lazy mistake.

Whew! Where did that come from? Anyway, food is one of the great joys, and loves, in life as illustrated by “Ice Cream.” Another food inspired showstopper is Clark Gesner’s tour de force for Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. The song is “Suppertime” and Bill Hinnant gives it a bravura performance.

Irving Berlin understandably wrote about loving his piano in the aptly titled song, “I Love a Piano.” It’s from 1916’s Stop, Look and Listen. The scene was a giant piano keyboard stretching across the stage with six pianists playing the song. (Why can’t we have that imagination today in musicals?). Anyway, Berlin had a good reason for loving his piano in particular. For he could only play in the key of F-sharp. So, he had a transposing piano built. It had a giant lever on the side that switched the mechanism so that he could play with only the black keys. Berlin would then play the song or whistle it to a series of transcribers who would write the music down for him. He paid them 50 cents a page.

It might not surprise you to know that for many people their love is mostly reserved for themselves. Not you, other people…. This is ably illustrated from Mark Sandrich Jr. and Sidney Michaels’ song “I Invented Myself” from Ben Franklin in Paris. Of course, Robert Preston’s title character also loved Ulla Sallert’s character Mademoiselle la Comtesse Diane de Vobrillac, expressed in the beautiful song “To Be Alone with You” (interpolated by Jerry Herman). It wasn’t a difficult number for Preston to pull off since he was in love with Sallert.

Places in our heart also get the loving treatment. Of course there’s “I Love Paris” from Cole Porter’s Can-Can. Not every town is a Paris or Rome or New York. We all have a special fondness for our home towns. Take “Wilkes Barre, PA” sung and danced by Vivian Leigh (!) and Byron Mitchell in Tovarich by Lee Pockriss and Ann Croswell. And then there’s “I Long for My Homeland Far Away” from Franz Lehar and Paul Kneppler’s The Land of Smiles. Too obscure? I guess so.

And sex too gets its due in musical theatre songs. Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s “Makin’ Whoopee” takes a lighthearted view of the consequences of love. Eddie Cantor starred in the show and made it one of his most requested songs. He certainly knew what he was talking about. Rumor has it that his show Banjo Eyes closed early because of Mrs. Cantor’s insistence that it do so. It seems Eddie was straying with a chorus girl and Mrs. Cantor who had gone through five pregnancies was having none of it.

I guess this all goes to show that love is a complicated thing and oh so many Broadway songs have celebrated all of its varied aspects. “Aspects?” “Aspects of Love Songs.” With a little tweaking it might make a good title for a Broadway show.

 

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Jan
19

2017

So, Andy’s asked me to look back on 2017 and the albums that were released. That’s kind of a rough task for me since last year the label I co-founded released couple. Naturally, I think you should have them: Barnum Backer’s Audition and Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke.

Okay, self-promotion out of the way.

What else was released? Well, we got cast recordings from a bunch of Broadway shows including one for Come From Away. Now, here’s a true sleeper, and isn’t it great to have a show that didn’t come in with a tornado of hype? Instead, audiences could discover for themselves the solid workmanship and honesty of this production. There aren’t great production values. There’s no big theatre or movie star around which the show is created. There’s just a surprisingly terrific idea for a show and it certainly resonates with audiences. With the cast album, you can kind of sense all of this.

One several movies that wound up singing on Broadway last year was Groundhog Day. And while it just couldn’t live up to the original it did have some real theatricality and imagination that set it apart from the film. Again, an interesting listen.

Oh, and you may not have heard of a little show that squeaked into town but I hear it’s good. It was this revival of Hello, Dolly! that had someone named Bette Midler (I think?) starring in it? I dunno. I got daunted by the prices I heard folks were forking over for a ticket. Still, it’s great fun to have a new recording of this classic Jerry Herman score on the shelf.

That just scratches the surface of the new music that came out 2017. Erik’s gone a whole lot broader in his column, and well, you know most of everything else. You get our newsletter every other week and Andy’s so good about putting the exciting stuff front and center.

Here’s to a great 2018 of listening and theatergoing!

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Jan
05

Beginnings...Opening Numbers

Hit songs from musicals sold tickets. The rest of the show might not have much merit but from the earliest beginnings of musical theatre writing a big hit song was the goal of every songwriter. Burton Lane felt lucky when the title song of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever became a big hit. It was one of the last songs from a Broadway musical to become a standard.

Hit songs certainly are important for getting the general public to buy tickets to a show and to sell the original cast album. But when an audience comes to the theatre and settles in their seats the most important part of a musical is the Overture. For every performance of every musical it’s the Overture that gives the audience a chance to relax, get in the moment, and get an idea of what kind of a score they’re in store for. And usually the hit song—the song that drew them to the show in the first place—is featured prominently in the Overture.

In a way, a musical show has two beginnings. At least the shows of what’s known as The Golden Age had a second start to the show, the opening number. The best of these introduce the locale, the characters, and kick the plot into gear.

So, after a roundabout way, here’s what I think are the best opening numbers.

My favorite might surprise you. It’s “Racing With the Clock” as sung by the immortal clown Eddie Foy Jr. from The Pajama Game. Not only is it a bright and lively number but it ticks off every box. It introduces the pajama factory and its denizens a sprightly and funny way. It immediately puts the audience at ease and ready to have a good time.

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s other show (and sadly only other show), Damn Yankees, also had a rip-roaring opening number, “Six Months Out of Every Year,” which perfectly set up the feelings of wives across the country whose husbands were missing in action during baseball season.

Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote one of the rare openings that became a hit in its own right, “New York, New York” from On the Town. This isn’t the song that urges you to start spreading the news but rather the geography lesson that taught us that the Bronx is up and the Battery down. That same team gave us another great opening with ‘Christopher Street” in Wonderful Town. Like “New York, New York,” it set up the geographic locale of the show and the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village long, long ago. Yes, there was a Village that didn’t only sport high-end fashion and high-end donuts.

Comden and Green, this time with Cy Coleman created that rarest of all musicals, a farcical comedy. On the Twentieth Century had a triumvirate of opening tunes. “Stranded Again” gave us the lowdown on producer Oscar Jaffee’s monetary plight. Then came “Saddle Up The Horse” in which Jaffee and his cohorts rose again to conquer Broadway. And it was followed in haste by the title tune, “On The Twentieth Century.” Between the performers, Robin Wagner’s breathtaking scenery, and the score, no musical has blasted off quite like On the Twentieth Century.

Sometimes with old classic musicals, we’re so used to seeing productions whether full-scale Broadway mountings or high school productions that we’ve stopped thinking about them and sort of half listen. The most famous of these is probably “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma! But let’s go back in musical theatre time to when the show first opened. Prior to that show most musicals started off with a gangbuster female chorus number that woke up the tired businessman and gave him some gorgeous gams to ogle. The words really didn’t matter it was just a way to get everyone in the mood.

So, when Oklahoma! opened with a solitary woman churning butter and an off-stage voice singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” audiences were shocked (yes, that’s the word) and trying to figure out what  this show was all about and what surprises were in store. And there were plenty of surprises for the audiences of 1943. But none more so than that laconic cowboy moseying down to the footlights.

More recently things are different but on closer examination not so different. Take Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim. No real overture but the cast invites us to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. And it’s followed by “No Place Like London” which sets the scene just like “New York, New York” or “Christopher Street.” And the in your face numbers and the harshness of the words and music make it clear to the audience that they’re in for it.

When I saw the show early in its Broadway run, the woman sitting next to me didn’t have a clue as to what she was about to see. And I watched her change of expression and could almost hear the gears shifting in her attitude at the first few numbers in the show. She was surprised but by the end of the first ten minutes or so she was fully prepared (almost) for what was to come. That’s the power of opening numbers.

Sadly, opening numbers today are sort of reverting to the days of yore when the opening numbers basically served to sort of start the show but really just exist to let everyone in the theatre relax into the world on stage.

Of course there’s lots of other great opening numbers. Kismet’s double play of “Sands of Time” and “Rhymes Have I;” Cabaret’s “Wilkommen;” Hello, Dolly!’s “I Put My Hand In;” Minnie’s Boys’ “Five Growing Boys;” Hair’s “Aquarius,” and more recently, Waitress’s “What’s Inside.”

Oh, there’s some bad opening numbers. The first that comes to mind is Irving Berlin’s final show, Mr. President. Nanette Fabray sings, “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz,” exactly what was wrong with the musical!

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Dec
15

Whatabout New Year?

Just a few thoughts about holiday songs from musicals this week. I guess Annie’s “A New Deal for Christmas” is the best known of the younger set while Mame’s “We Need a Little Christmas” most comes to mind to some older musical theatre mavens. The most beautiful are The Song of Norway’s “At Christmastime” and “Christmas Child” from Irma La Douce. Of course, Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love—based on the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street—has “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The latter is a true-blue Christmas standard but it wasn’t actually written for the show. Meredith Willson wrote it way back in 1951.

There are certainly more, but what I want to know is where are the New Year’s songs? Can you even think of one? Well, there’s “New Year’s Day” from Side Show, and both Sunset Boulevard and A Doll's Life have songs called "New Year's Eve." Of course the Andrew Lloyd-Webber one leads right into the better known "The Perfect Year."

Rent was a big hit but do you remember “Happy New Year B?” I don’t. And I’m fairly sure that you don’t know “I Feel Like New Year’s Eve” from Something More which was interpolated into the Sammy Fain score by Jule Styne, who was also the director of the show. The original cast recording is not available digitally and long out of print, but you can hear this tune on Neva Small's My Place in the World, which is only available as a physical disc. And if you want to know more about this show, read Barbara Cook’s autobiography for her take on the it. Pretty interesting.

Slightly better known might be “Happy, Happy New Year” from the Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner failure Dance a Little Closer. Another good score from a bad show.

Frank Loesser attempted a New Year’s song, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t from a show so it technically doesn’t count here, but it’s the best we’ve got. Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Billy Eckstine covered the song and it’s not bad, how could it be when Frank Loesser wrote it but it never caught on.

So, all you budding songwriters out there here’s your chance to write a perennial New Years song. You don’t have a lot of competition. Get going and remember, it was I who gave you the idea!

Have a wonderful new year with plenty of good health and happiness.

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Dec
01

Islands

There are islands all through musical theatre songs both real and metaphorical. Here’s an informal, incomplete, and interesting (I hope) list of some terrific island songs.

Let’s start our island song cruise with New York City. Even those of us who live here in Manhattan sometimes forget that we’re living on an island, and the Caribbean-set musical Jamaica has one of the best New York island songs of all time; one written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Its title is “Push de Button” and it’s really about all the modern conveniences of life on the “little island in the Hudson.” It’s a funny song and musical comedy fans know that truly funny songs are extremely difficult to find. Currently Stephen Sondheim and David Yazbek can write really funny songs. Others who come to mind as terrific humorists in lyric writing are—beyond Harburg—Jerry Herman, Leo Robin, Cole Porter, and Ira Gershwin. “Push de Button” is as well crafted and inspired as a song can get.

Actually, Dorothy Fields also wrote funny songs but they didn’t contain actual jokes like those of Sondheim, Robin, and Harburg. And in keeping with our tour of the greater New York area here’s Dorothy and Arthur Schwartz’s ode to the seaside, “Coney Island Boat.” It’s a jaunty tune from the Shirley Booth starrer By the Beautiful Sea.

Coney Island is a lively, picturesque place, and Stan Freeman and Jack Lawrence’s I Had a Ball featured this rousing paean to hot dogs, fortune tellers, sideshows, and sand, “Coney Island U.S.A” If you don’t know the score you should definitely give it a listen. Buddy Hackett, Richard Kiley, and the magnificent Karen Morrow put across one of the most energetic scores of all time. And I mean that as a compliment.

And Coney Island figures in a third musical show, On the Town. Composer Leonard Bernstein wrote a terrific ballet for that show titled “Imaginary Coney Island.” Lucky for us, most of the albums of On the Town’s score contain the ballets by Bernstein.

OK, here’s a song with “Island” in the title that has nothing to do with an actual island! The song is “Rock Island” (named after the railroad company) and the show is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. It’s funny not because it has jokes but because it’s a pretty audacious piece, opening the show with rhythm but no music.

Speaking of humorous writers and another song with “Island” in the title but no island in the song, there’s the Dietz and Schwartz number “Rhode Island Is Famous for You” from Inside USA. It’s both smart and silly. All we know is this number perfectly illustrates the mostly lost art of comedy songs.

Finally there’s a wonderful song from an obscure show by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans though I’m sure many of BwayTunes’ faithful readers are familiar with the show, Let It Ride. You know how some second or even third-rate scores still can have one or two terrific songs? That’s true of Let It Ride. The star, George Gobel, sings “His Own Little Island” and it’s a neglected ballad that should be better known.

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