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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.

Jun
08

Everything Old is New Again

Tony season is upon us and it’s a year that careened wildly between the sublime The Band’s Visit to the ridiculous SpongeBob SquarePants.

Those two shows plus Frozen and Mean Girls are the nominees for Best Musical. For a while The Band’s Visit seemed to be a shoo-in but recently some have posited that SpongeBob might actually get the Tony nod.

Of course, there’s a whole coterie of theatergoers who look down on SpongeBob as simply a cartoon blown-up to fill the Palace Theatre stage. And others feel that The Band’s Visit is heartfelt and sincere but missing that Broadway razzmatazz. And after it’s opening the much heralded Frozen turned out to be a pretty slushy fairy-tale in the Disney manner. As for Mean Girls, the snarky movie became a snarky musical with the addition of some forgettable songs.

Well, whatever you think, it was ever thus on Broadway.

Take SpongeBob for example. Broadway history has long (very long) list of shows based on cartoons and their close relatives comic strips.

The comic strip Happy Hooligan premiered in 1900 and had a musical version as early as 1906 with Happy Hooligan’s Trip Around the World. The next year saw a show of the same name but with different production credits. We don’t know much more about the show but the fact that both played Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania shows the level of humor on stage.

Hard on Happy Hooligan’s heels were a series of shows based on Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff newspaper strip that was first published in 1907. Only six years later a musical version of the same name toured the country under the auspices of producer Gus Hill. There were a series of Mutt and Jeff musicals produced by Hill for nine more years. There were Mutt and Jeff at the Races, Divorced, in Chinatown, in College,in Mexico, and Mutt and Jeff’s Wedding (not to each other—that would be asking too much for 1917). So, between 1913 and 1922 there were no less than eight Mutt and Jeff musicals, none of which went to Broadway because Gus Hill knew that people in the sticks would sell out his shows but Broadway’s so-called intelligentsia wouldn’t go for the corny jokes.

And if you think that comics were only for rubes at the start of the last century may we draw your attention to a great big Broadway hit, 1956’s Li’l Abner based on the strip by Al Capp. And class-A songwriters Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer provided a terrific score.

Closer to our own age (and you knew it was coming) was Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s smasharama, Annie. There hasn’t been a year and maybe even a day that has gone by without a production of this smash hit musical that ran for over 2,000 performances. And like Mutt and Jeff, there were sequels. There was Annie Two: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge that flopped out-of-town in 1990. And that morphed into 1993’s off-Broadway flop, Annie Warbucks. Sometimes the magic works but it’s damned hard to recreate past glories. But that’s fodder for another column.

And please note: Li’l Abner especially was written for adult consumption much as was the comic strip. And Annie also walked the same fine line but usually erred on the side of the younger set in the audience.

Now on to the new fairy tale of Frozen. Again, fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and others have been around since the beginnings of Broadway. Most of the early ones were based on English pantomimes but they soon grew into full-fledged musicals and, again, they were meant for children of all ages, as their publicity was wont to crow.

Cinderella had her moments on stage in a series of shows including 1881’s Cinderella at School; 1904’s Cinderella and the Prince of Castle of Heart’s Desire; 1920’s Cinderella on Broadway produced by the Shubert brothers; and 1916’s flip on the fairy tale, The Cinderella Man with music by none other than Victor Herbert. Of course, in 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized the story for television and subsequently there was a 2013 readjustment for modern sensibilities.

And speaking of Victor Herbert he had the most successful fairy tale musical of all time, 1903’s classic Babes in Toyland. Along with lyricist/librettist Glen MacDonough, Herbert wrote one of the greatest scores in Broadway history. And it was a lollapalooza of a production. You think that The Phantom of the Opera is a spectacular show? Well, it can’t hold a fairy godmother’s wand to Babes in Toyland when it first opened.

Our final two musicals don’t really have Broadway antecedents. First of all, The Band’s Visit, excellent though it is, is at heart an off-Broadway musical especially in terms of its physical production. It’s an excellent, moving show but seldom has there been an original Broadway musical on such a small scale. It certainly owes a lot to the success of Avenue Q, another modest show that made it on Broadway from Off and then subsequently went back to Off-Broadway.

And Mean Girls. Well, it does follow in the questionable tradition of slapping songs into what is basically a script from Hollywood. That’s not to say that the show isn’t enjoyable or acted and directed well. But it’s somehow still a movie on stage much in the same as were Legally Blonde and Sister Act.

Have a wonderful Sunday. Everybody into the pool (that is the betting pool).

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May
25

Complete Recorded Shows...

Like early versions of books on tape, some shows were deemed so important, neigh impossible to appreciate without a full airing, that several record companies (mainly Columbia) recorded complete shows.

We’re not going to discuss the plays that were captured on vinyl. And actually, we’re going to skip all the also-rans in the musical field and concentrate on the greatest of all complete recordings, Frank Loesser’s masterpiece (yes, masterpiece) The Most Happy Fella.

Why does this recording best all the others? Because, like operas that usually got the 3-LP treatment, The Most Happy Fella is best appreciated as a whole rather than a series of songs without the recitative and sung ligaments holding the entire thing together. Not quite an opera, not really a musical in form, Loesser’s achievement (and he wrote the music, lyrics and dialogue) ably captures it’s source, Sidney Howard’s play, They Knew What They Wanted.

The score is wildly divergent. It ranges from the traditional musical comedy comic song “Ooh My Feet” to the operatic “My Heart Is So Full of You,” from large choral numbers “Abbondonza” and “Sposalizio” to popular hits “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Big D” to simplicity of “Love and Kindness” and “Warm All Over.” This is one of the richest scores in musical comedy.

It’s interesting to note that in 1954, Harold Rome’s emotionally rich show Fanny opened. Also with an opera star in the lead and also the plot revolving on an older man adopting the baby of a younger man and the woman they both loved as his own. And in 1956’s The Most Happy Fella it’s Tony, self-described as “An Old Man” who adopts the newborn of his mail-order bride, and the young man whose wanderlust makes him go wandering.

And some of the score of The Most Happy Fella is also reminiscent of Harold Rome’s  Fanny. The former’s “Joey, Joey, Joey” as sung by the character Joey (natch) is all about having the need to constantly move on at the impossible task of finding oneself. And in Fanny, Marius yearns for a life on the sea when he sings “Restless Heart.” Both leave newborns behind to be adopted by the older leading characters as their own.

Both shows are achingly poignant. Sadly, Fanny has slipped somewhat into obscurity like many of Harold Rome’s scores. But The Most Happy Fella lives on with as complete a recording as could fit on three LPs. It’s a glorious score with operatic ballads, hilarious character numbers, and something rare that both scores share, poignancy.  And that’s what gives both their strengths. Flawed characters trying to be true to themselves while dealing with each other in sometimes dramatic, sometimes humorous ways.

Do yourself a favor and check out both scores on CD and downloads.

 

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May
11

Irving Berlin

In these days of irony, pseudo-sophistication, and snark Irving Berlin seems awfully out of step.

Sentimental, heartfelt songs like “Always,” “All Alone,” and “When I Lost You” are derided for being too sappy and simplistic. And don’t even bring up “God Bless America” which in our perilous times seems absolutely naïve.

But putting Berlin in the perspective of his times—and he had the longest-lasting songwriting career of any of his peers—makes his accomplishments even more impressive. After all, his music was the soundtrack to America (corny but true) for over 60 years.

His first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” written in 1907 with music by Nick Nicholson, was a surprise success. And his last song, “You’ve Got to Be Way Out to Be In,” was written exactly sixty years later.

By the 1960s Berlin knew his songs were out of step with the times. When Mr. President was trying out in Boston the reviews were not good. In fact, the Globe’s headline was, “Knee Deep Amongst the Corn.” It was decided that the negative reviews wouldn’t be discussed with Mr. Berlin. That morning, Berlin, book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, director Joshua Logan, and Anita Gillette were walking across Boston Common to the theatre, talking about anything but the reviews. About midway through the park, Berlin inquired, “Did any of you see the reviews?” Logan hemmed and hawed while everyone else didn’t know quite what to say. Berlin broke the silence and said, “White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “God Bless America,” I know my songs are corny. But so is “My Old Kentucky Home.”

In 1911, his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made ragtime acceptable to the public at large. And was even a first step in race relations since the name Alexander was used in songwriting to indicate African American men. The song initiated a ragtime craze among the white population even though it wasn’t quite true ragtime. But its syncopated rhythm was a revelation in pop music.

For As Thousands Cheer Berlin wrote “Supper Time” about a black woman whose husband was lynched and wouldn’t ever return home to his wife and children. It was a unique moment in the history of American musical theatre. Ethel Waters sang it and her co-stars Clifton Webb and Marilyn Miller refused to take a final curtain call with her. Berlin set them straight, telling them that if they would not bow with her there would be no bows at all. Even before As Thousands Cheer opened in 1933 Berlin had written a song of unity for all Americans regardless or race or color, “Let’s All Be Americans Now.” The year was 1917.

He donated millions of dollars worth of royalties to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as well as to all the branches of the services, the American Red Cross and other charities. 1943’s This Is the Army featured the first integrated division unit in the Army.

Well, you get the point. And when you listen to even the most corny of Berlin’s songs remember he was the most famous and most successful songwriter in history.

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Apr
27

Favorite Musical of the '90s

Okay folks. Here’s your chance to think me a fool and disagree with me on almost everything!

Andy wants me to write about my favorite ‘90s musical. Uh oh. There were some good musicals, but I can’t say I have any favorites. There are some shows with good qualities, but in each there’s something that isn’t top drawer. But here’s my list like it or not. And in no particular order.

I’d say the most artistically successful musical of the ‘90s was John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrance McNally’s Kiss of the Spider Woman that premiered on May 3, 1993 and ran a very healthy 904 performances.  The award here goes to the writers because Kiss had a tryout in Purchase, New York just north of New York City. It was a disaster. Just terrible. And on a stage so huge the jail cell could have housed a family of twelve along with assorted pets and couch surfers. The reviewers weren’t supposed to attend and write about the evening, but the logic was if the producers were charging for tickets the show was fair game for reviews. And the reviews were bad. Really bad.

But Kander, Ebb and McNally believed in the project and so they wrote and rewrote and opened in Toronto, a much stronger show. Strong enough to, after some more tweaking, come to New York and great success.

For me the second best musical of the ‘90s was Stephen Sondheim and James Lepine’s Passion. The opening was May 9, 1994, almost exactly a year after Kiss. It was highly anticipated, but the score was difficult for the average first-timer, although upon repeated listenings it’s special genius shines through. Sadly, the direction enabled some unintentional laughs. This is a show with real depth and apparently little mass appeal. It only ran for 280 performances.

Here’s a big bomb by a major songwriter that was disdained by almost everyone. Paul Simon’s Capeman, which  closed after only sixty-eight performances after its Jan. 29, 1998 opening. The problem was the direction and staging with much of the action taking place far upstage. Many years later I was asked to direct a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of a proposed Paul Simon weekend. My idea was to stage it like an oratorio since the songs didn’t actually contain drama. But the entire weekend was abandoned and that was that! I still think it could work splendidly in a concert situation.

Cy Coleman, David Newman, and Ira Gasman concocted The Life, as in “life on the streets.” Yes, streetwalkers and other denizens of the night made up mostly of pimps, whores and johns. A jolly show!! Actually it had drama and some no-nonsense songs. April 26 1997 marked the opening and after a total of 466 performances, the show closed. There were some laughs and good songs and the show did run an okay number of performances for a failure. It was an unapologetic score and story and had a very strong cast.

I hear the murmuring, the wheels turning in readers’ heads. Where the @)%$ is Ragtime? It’s a favorite with many people. I felt the New York production was over designed and strangely cast. And produced in too big a theatre. But the cast with one exception who I won’t name was excellent. Years later I saw it in what was basically a black box theatre and I enjoyed it much more. Still, never cottoned to the score much.  But obviously, I’m in a minority.

Ready for a really nutsy choice? Now don’t go cursing me out or sending out the men in the white coats but the Jule Styne, Marsha Norman and Paul Stryker musical version of The Red Shoes could have been a success. Let me explain. I saw many previews and the show was OK but not great and not a disaster. I saw it again as it neared its December 16, 1993 opening and it got worse. Then Paul Stryker was brought in to help with the lyrics. Don’t know Paul Stryker? That’s because he’s really Bob Merrill. And the show got worse. The director was the famed Hollywood director Stanley Donen, a genius of film direction, but it was an ignominious return to the Great White Way. Lar Lubovich came up with some very interesting dances, certainly a plus. And Leslie Browne, a noted dancer was enchanting when dancing. Finally, it closed after only five performances. Yes, Jule Styne, like many older composers near the ends of their careers reused some music (the Scherzo from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for one) and Roger Rees is not musical material but I thought he carried himself well but still he was replaced by Steve Barton, a bit of a stiff. Anyway, obviously it can’t be saved but I feel that if it might actually have been saved.

The biggest hit of the season was The Lion King, and it’s still running today and shows no sign of ever closing. Julie Taymor’s work is wonderful, but the book and score don’t do it for me.

Julie Andrews returned to a much heralded return to Broadway with Victor/Victoria. She had two “tracks;” one in which she was blocked to sit down a lot if she was tired. And I felt some of the Bricusse lyrics were smarmy. I didn’t like the movie much either. Still, the stage version ran 734 performances.

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic was an even bigger success with 804 performances. Really terrific vocal arrangements and some very good songs, but Peter Stone’s book leaned too much on irony.

There were also (in no apparent order) Beauty and the Beast (a return to Shubert operetta production values), Miss Saigon (the big spectaculars just didn’t do it for me), and its opposite, Once on This Island (a nice, sweet little show that right now is enjoying an imaginative revival with a very good cast), Side Show, Smokey Joe’s Café (a favorite of the bridge and tunnel crowed that later flocked to Jersey Boys and today’s Beautiful), Parade, and the bitterest of the bittersweet successes, Rent.

 

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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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