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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.

Oct
12

Hammerstein's Musings

First what is a soliloquy anyway? It’s an internal monologue where someone sings what thoughts are going on in their head. It’s a neat way to clue the audience into what the character is thinking without having to illustrate it through dialogue with another character or dramatized in the plot.

The master of all soliloquies is Oscar Hammerstein. When he joined up with Richard Rodgers, their first show, Oklahoma!, had Jud Fry musing about his “Lonely Room.” It’s a powerful song both from Jud’s point of view and the audience’s, who come to understand through it that Jud isn’t just a villain but a complex person with complex emotions.

That was just a warm-up for what is possibly the greatest of all soliloquies, Carousel’s aptly named, “Soliloquy.” In addition to being a brilliant song it’s right up there with the greatest of first-act curtain numbers. And Hammerstein doubled down on “Soliloquy” with South Pacific, which boasted not one but two soliloquies, again aptly named, “Twin Soliloquies.”

Most soliloquies are sung alone on stage, and for The King and I, he and Rodgers gave Yul Brynner a tour de force with “A Puzzlement.” It’s an important song since it gives the audience and especially the King the realization that he isn’t as omnipotent as he thinks. There’s a whole world beyond Siam that is very, very confusing. It’s at once a profile of the King and a humorous song, unusual for a soliloquy.

Pipe Dream gave us Suzy’s song, “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me.” Like many of Hammerstein’s songs it has a double purpose. It’s a character’s expression of what’s on their mind and also sets the underlying theme of the whole shebang. Pipe Dream is a flawed show, but it also has a lot to recommend it, and Suzy’s song is excellent.

That’s a short roundup of Oscar Hammerstein’s soliloquies written with Richard Rodgers. Listening to these songs one’s appreciation of Hammerstein’s view of the world and his love of his characters is all the more impressive. People may joke about larks learning to pray, but Hammerstein’s talents can’t be overestimated. 

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Sep
28

So Many Greats

Has any other major Broadway composer written so many great shows and so few shows?

Let’s have a look at the shows, shall we?

Lenny, as his compatriots called him, hit Broadway with a huge hit, On the Town. Bernstein himself was thrilled with the show’s reception writing, “the reviews are fantastic raves…it’s thrilling!”

The legendary producer/director/author George Abbott wrote the composer, “please don’t let yourself be distressed by minor criticism from some of your pals. It is a wonderful score.” Then Abbot himself gave Lenny a bit of minor criticism about the score, “—a bit to profligate perhaps, too many fresh melodies thrown in where developments of existing ones would have done.”

Following the success of On the Town, book writer–lyricists Comden and Green were anxious to do another show. They got the aforementioned George Abbott on board and asked Lenny to write it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available and so another musician definitely in the classical camp wrote the score—Morton Gould. And the result was Billion Dollar Baby, a failure.

Abbott approached Lenny in 1949 asking if he would be available to write music for another new musical, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Again, someone else, namely Arthur Schwartz, wrote the score and a glorious score it is.

Bernstein finally returned to the Broadway theatre in 1950 with a production of James M. Barrie’s classic, Peter Pan. Bernstein provided both music and lyrics for few charming songs and the show ran nine months and 321 performances. Marc Blitzstein worked on the production (uncredited) and served as the eyes and ears of the production while Bernstein was off on other projects. In fact, when a reprise of the song, “Who Am I?” was needed for the finale it was Blitzstein who provided the lyrics. Blitzstein wrote Lenny, “two days before the first preview, the production seems generically right (if you like Peter Pan at all), but specifically right almost nowhere.” Blitzstein summed it all up by writing, “Who knows? It will probably turn out to be the hit of the century.”

And in 1952, Bernstein and his Blitzstein considered collaborating on an opera about the life of Eva Peron. Obviously, that also did not come to pass.

Comden and Green still wanted to write with Lenny and in 1950 they had proposed “a kind of modern Boheme—the girl a smart 1950 tramp and the guy a writer or musician.” That one never materialized either, but the team worked wonders again and Wonderful Town opened in February 1953 to raves.

Later that year, playwright Lillian Hellman approached Lenny about making some sort of lyric production out of Candide. Hellman herself admitted, “I think it could make a really wonderful combination of opera—prose—songs. It’s so obviously right that I wonder nobody has done it before, or have they?” And in January of 1954, Lenny decided he would write the music. But the road to Broadway was rocky. In 1954 he wrote, “We have had big lyricist trouble in Candide, and have only now this minute…made a final and utter break with Mr. LaTouche (sic). At the point of the break the show was less than half-finished.”

It took until December of 1956 for Candide to open. Dismissed at the time it has been re-tinkered with trying to make it work on stage.

Only a year later, perhaps his greatest theatrical work, West Side Story, opened on Broadway. Working with the very young, very green Stephen Sondheim was a delight especially after the horrors of Candide. Bernstein had been in touch with librettist Arthur Laurents  and Jerome Robbins beginning in the spring of 1955. Bernstein wrote about a meeting that took place with Laurents in Hollywood in August of ’55. “Had a fine long session with Arthur today, by the pool… We’re fired up again by the Romeo notion, only now we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two tenn-age gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’ Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and—most of all—I can sort of feel the form.”

West Side Story was to be Bernstein’s last success on Broadway. Along the way was a version of The Skin of Our Teeth in 1964 that never got beyond drafting stages.

Finally, Bernstein was convinced to write a musical for the country’s Bicentennial. The result, written with the peripatetic Alan Jay Lerner was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lerner was inspired by the horrors of the Watergate scandal and wrote that the piece was about “those moments when people tried to take the White House away from us.” Even that early in the conception of the piece Bernstein and Lerner didn’t see eye-to-eye. The composer responded to Lerner’s idea, “This play has nothing to do with the contemporary scene except in the minds of those who choose to see it there.” But it wasn’t just Lerner’s concept that failed the project. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Lenny had a bad case of important-itis.” And so did Lerner. Together as director Frank Corsaro later stated they had such a vaunted feeling about themselves they had “so high-powered their attitude was that they could do no wrong.”

And with the four-performance failure of 1600, Bernstein’s musical theatre career ended.

Of course, there were many revivals and rethinkings of his works. Even 1600’s score is celebrated. And today, as mentioned at the top of this essay, no composer has written so many great shows and so few shows.

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Sep
14

Greenpeace...Musicals...

Well, this was a particularly hard assignment. While there are some songs that celebrate nature most songs deal with the elements of nature symbolically. Happiness, sadness, love, loss all have been connected to emotional moments both high and low using nature symbolically.

Here’s a quick summary of songs that are celebrations of nature in all its glory.

Mountains seem to be popular in songwriting. And notable songs with mountains as their theme includes Rodgers and Hart’s “Mountain Greenery” from The Garrick Gaieties (that show wasn’t recorded so take a listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing it). A flop show with a very good score (and great vocal arrangements) is A Time for Singing (this cast recording isn’t available digitally, but you can buy it here) by John Morris and Gerald Freedman, and it’s perfectly expressed by Ivor Emmanuel when he gives his all in “The Mountains Sing Back.”  Meredith Willson wrote “The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Car’line” for The Music Man but sadly it was cut.

Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill’s Love Life extolled the wonders of spring in “Green Up Time,” which got a swell rendition by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya. E.Y. Harburg and Sammy Fain also had spring on their minds with Flahooley’s “The Springtime Cometh.” And what’s growing in spring? Flowers and trees.

Flowers are always good subjects for songwriters. Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s superior score for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has Barbara Harris imploring flowers that it can’t be fun subterranean so they should “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here.” “Windflowers” from Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s The Golden Apple sadly is not in more performers’ repertoires. It’s a gorgeous ballad. Albert Hague and Allan Sherman’s The Fig Leaves Are Falling was another flop with pretty good songs. And that show’s “Today I Saw a Rose” is especially meaningful. Diahann Carroll sings so sweetly in House of Flowers, and the title song is particularly beautiful. Its opposite is “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” with typically acerbic lyrics by Lorenz Hart set to a particularly bump and grind style melody by Richard Rodgers for Pal Joey.

Trees get their due in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon with “I Talk to the Trees” as sung with brio by Tony Bavaar. Protection of said trees was on the mind of Irving Berlin in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 when Bert Williams sang, “Woodman, Spare That Tree.” An opposite song about protecting trees from men with axes was Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Song of the Woodman” in The Show Is On as sung by Bert Lahr when he chopped, chopped, chopped.

And what makes the flowers and trees grow out of the ground? Rain of course. And it’s especially important to the plot of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 110 in the Shade. The character of Starbuck claims to make the rain fall in torrents from the sky and sings about it in the aptly named “Rain Song.” Ruby Hill and Harold Nicholas shone in the Arlen and Mercer show St. Louis Woman. “Come Rain or Come Shine” became an instant standard from that show’s score. Tommy Steele—in David Heneker’s Half a Sixpence—implored the gods that “If the Rain’s Got to Fall” it shouldn’t fall in Folkstone.

Rain means rainbows, of course. And the late, lamented Danny Fortus gave a tenderly impassioned performance in Minnie’s Boys when he sang Hal Hackady and Larry Grossman’s “Mama, a Rainbow” (you can hear this on a Broadway Boys album) to Shelley Winters. A sweet song that is all the more emotional given Fortus’ death from AIDS. 1918’s Oh, Look! featured “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Carroll. It was performed in that show by the Dolly Sisters but you might know it from the 1973 revival of Irene where it was sung by Debbie Reynolds.

There’s lots more of course but give a listen to the songs mentioned above and I guarantee you’ll find some gems that are worth remembering no matter what the season or what the weather.

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Aug
31

Happy Birthday Alan Jay Lerner!

Yet another centennial year for a Broadway luminary and now a chance to reexamine the work of Alan Jay Lerner.

Certainly, he should be at the top of anyone’s list of the greatest musical theatre lyricists (never mind his excellence in libretto authorship). His precise use of language perfectly suited to the characters and times they lived in might be unique. The words comprising the lyrics in My Fair Lady are different than those in Paint Your Wagon or Gigi. Other lyricists write mostly in their own voice (perhaps Dorothy Fields?) or in their own unique style regardless of the time or place or characters (perhaps E.Y. Harburg) or subsuming his own voice with turns of phrase that are witty without showing off (perhaps Stephen Sondheim).

Lerner is smart and has a bemused take on his characters’ foibles. He never laughs at them—he makes the audience like the characters even more because of their humanity. And Stephen Sondheim does exactly the same thing when writing for Sally in Follies or Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing…. In Gigi, Gaston sings the title song and, as it progresses, comes to realize that he’s been an ass. And that he’s in love with Gigi. We’ve been ahead of him throughout the play so it’s such a wonderful moment for us to see him break through his upperclass veneer and love someone “below” him.

Lerner can also be quite wistful. Ben Rumson wishes his wife was still alive; he misses her so when he sings “I Still See Elisa” in Paint Your Wagon. And this tough, rough man shows us a gentle introspective side, so soft and sweet you want to cry for him. The same goes in Carmelina, to music by Burton Lane, where an older man wishes for “One More Walk Around the Garden” before he dies.

As we’ve seen above, characters change in Lerner shows. The ultimate turnaround comes at the end of My Fair Lady when Henry Higgins suddenly realizes, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.” And this song is brilliant because it’s so true to the character of Higgins. No belting out “She Loves Me!” but this man who has always kept his emotions in reserve (well, mostly, except for looking down on those he considers beneath him) suddenly finds his heart beating from emotion not exertion and sees how much he loves Eliza and how much a fool he’s been. That’s a lot for one song to carry, but Lerner pulls it off brilliantly. And parenthetically it puts the lie to the current production of MFL where Eliza has a “me too” moment. When Higgins tells Eliza to fetch him his slippers she realizes that despite his inability to express real emotion he’s asking her to accept him as he is, a changed man.

We are lucky that Lerner’s career landed smack dab at the start of most shows getting original cast recordings, so the majority of this shows and film scores have been recorded. Yes, Life of the Party, What’s Up?, and The Day Before Spring arrived (and failed) just as Oklahoma! ushered in a new era in original cast recordings. Love Life was caught up in the musician’s strike (and boy do we need a complete recording of that!). And his later shows, Lolita, My Love and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were also flops but full recordings of them are also needed.

Still, we’re very lucky to have Alan Jay Lerner’s great works available at the click of a mouse or keyboard. During this centennial year let’s take a new look at shows we think we know backwards and forwards. Even My Fair Lady has new things to discover. Witticisms and emotions we forgot or were too young to understand. And as we age, we have a different perspective that we had in our callow youth.

Lerner, unlike other songwriters never saw a gradual decline in his talent. His lyrics are just as shrewd and observational and emotional as in his prime. For myself I’m celebrating his centennial year listening to all his shows (see Erik’s column for the full list) in chronological order starting at Brigadoon and going all the way to Dance a Little Closer and a few songs from his last, unproduced show, My Man Godfrey.

I suggest you do the same.

 

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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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