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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.

Jan
19

2017

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

Okay, self-promotion out of the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan
05

Beginnings...Opening Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec
15

Whatabout New Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec
01

Islands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nov
10

Character Actors

I was thinking about Hello, Dolly! the other day. There seems to be a revival of the show on Broadway now. Did you hear about that? Anyway, then I thought about Carol Channing, David Burns, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sondra Lee, and Eileen Brennan from the show’s original incarnation. If you think of it, it’s an odd grouping. What they all have in common is that they were all character actors. Both Channing and Burns are certainly eccentric. And the same could be said for the rest of the cast. But what makes this most interesting is that there’s no typical romantic ingénues in the cast.

And staying in the past, there were Judy Holliday (Bells Are Ringing, for instance), Zero Mostel headlined Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing, Once Upon a Mattress Carol Burnett, Ethel Merman (in so many…), and Nanette Fabray in Make a Wish.  Leading roles also went to Nancy Walker and Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi; House of Flowers star was Pearl Bailey; and Jackie Gleason and Tammy Grimes were the draw in Take Me Along and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, respectively. And that’s just a few. Even Angela Lansbury played leading roles (Anyone Can Whistle, anybody?) better suited to a character actor. Hey, Barbra Streisand could easily be in the character actor category.

Today we have Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked, Young Frankenstein), Mary Testa (Xanadu), and Jackie Hoffman (Hairspray, The Addams Family). Nathan Lane is one of the few character actors of our time to play leading roles. And he’s always terrific even when the vehicle is not. Why can’t Fitzgerald star in How to Succeed? Mary Testa can do everything, and if you don’t believe me listen to her genuine star turn on The Queen of the Mist. She may not be a perfect choice for Eliza or Maria von Trapp (hmmmm?) but she would be a terrific lead in a host of other shows. She has the humor but she can also sell a romantic song and portray vulnerability. This is also exactly a description of Judy Holliday. And Jackie Hoffman is certainly a crowd pleaser in a leading role if she could tone it down a little.

All these people, past and present, lend humor to their roles. And a bit of spice also. None of them are stiff baritones or winsome sopranos. They bring flair and style to their roles. And audiences certainly relate better to them since they seem like us.

So, let’s have some imagination, producers!

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Oct
27

Stars

This week’s column is about celestial bodies and no we’re not talking about Broadway Bares. Instead, we’re talking about stars. MGM used to boast that they had “more stars than there are in heaven.” And when you think about it, they did have a ton of stars under contract. And thinking of Broadway at about the same time, mainly the 1950s, there was also loads of stars on the boards.

But if you look at what’s playing today on Broadway in a single season it appears that there aren’t as many stars as there used to be. In fact, the number of true stars on Broadway today can be counted on one hand. And please, there’s a difference between a “star” and “starring in a show.” The former is an actor who can reliably sell tickets without the public knowing what the show is about. At the beginning of the last century it was a true acknowledgement of one’s talents to be allowed to put a star on the door of one’s dressing room. And “starring in” a show really only means you have the leading role whatever your talents are.

What are the reasons there are so few true stars today? First of all, very few performers are dedicated solely to Broadway. Think of Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, and Mary Martin, possibly the greatest musical comedy stars in Broadway history. They all dabbled in movies but they were truly Broadway stars and they reliably showed up on Broadway every few years or so. That seldom happens nowadays. So, theatergoers don’t have the pride of place relationships with the performers.

Another reason for the dearth of stars is movies and television. In days gone by, actors were trained in stage technique. Today, most performers are giving smaller-than-life performances suited to close ups or 50-inch screens. Stage technique meant knowing how to walk and stand upon a stage. How to make an entrance in a show. How to engage the audience without actually playing to them directly. How to project your voice to the farthest part of the theatre without the use of microphones. And believe me, microphones sap a performer’s energy. Just the effort to speak clearly and use your diaphragm to push sound clear up to the second balcony gets the blood moving and that energy comes across the footlights.

Finally, the third reason there aren’t many stars in the Broadway firmament is ticket prices. Again, years ago, when ticket prices were reasonable and producers weren’t all about the greed, you could afford to see your favorite star in a musical or play without breaking the bank. Even going to a show that got so-so reviews but with your favorite star would be all right. If the play wasn’t so hot, you did get to see your favorite actor and you didn’t have to be royally pissed off that you spent your rent money or mortgage for a seat in the back of the first balcony (er, I mean mezzanine) on a really bad show.

Listen, there’s a lot of very good performers on Broadway both in musicals and plays. And it’s a pleasure to see them. As Bette Midler has proven (at the box office at least) a star is something special and the enthusiasm their audience feels toward them is palpable and soon both on stage and in the seats everyone is joined in a wonderful communal feeling.

No, I’m not going to say who I think are the stars of today but I’d like to know your favorites.

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Oct
13

Falling and Tripping

You know, I just can't make it easy on myself when working on Andy's assignments. The easy way out would be songs like "Falling in Love," Henry Sullivan and Earle Crooker's song from The Third Little Show, or "Falling in Love With Love" that Rodgers and Hart wrote for The Boys From Syracuse, or "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," which you might know from Miss Liberty but more recently the Irving Berlin tune was interpolated into the Broadway version of White Christmas. Berlin wrote another "falling" song for Annie Get Your Gun: "They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful." Also Fats Waller, Harry Link, and Billy Rose wrote the song "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" for the revue Hot Chocolates. It's now a jazz standard. There's also Victor Herbert and Rida Johnson Young's "I'm Falling in Love With Someone" that was a hit from Naughty Marietta.

As for "tripping," the only show song I can think of is "Tripping the Light Fantastic." Harold Rome wrote that for Wish You Were Here.

But enough of that. I want to do something else. First I want to list some shows in which people are falling for a con.

In Flora the Red Menace, the title character falls for Harry Toukarian emotionally and with his Communist views.

Thomas Meehan's script for Annie has Daddy Warbucks and his assistant, Grace, fall for the lies of the evil Miss Hannigan who plots to get Warbucks' bucks.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has the protagonist J. Pierpont Finch wheeling and dealing up the corporate ladder with the bosses falling for his scheming.

Now, as for tripping, can you guess what I'm thinking of? Yes, it's marijuana. And interestingly, the late '60s and early '70s were the heyday of shows in which people smoked dope. The earliest show that I can think of that featured smoking dope is Murder at the Vanities by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow. The song was aptly named "Marahuana." And no, when Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach wrote "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" they were talking about even a cigarette.

The librettists of Hair, James Rado and Gerome Ragni along with composer Galt MacDermot concocted a truly revolutionary musical. Never meant for Broadway it had productions at the Public Theater and then at the nightclub Cheetah before arriving on the Great White Way and immediately became a sensation. If you think of the success of Hamilton Hair had more of an impact both at the box office and culturally. In addition to lots of drugs on stage and in the bodies of the cast during performances Hair celebrated black boys, white boys, anti-war demonstrations, the draft, drag, various incarnations of sexuality, the shock of "hippies" and their long hair (very shocking), pollution, the military/industrial complex, and the clueless older generation. And yes, the show has many, many drug references. There's even a long second act LSD trip in which George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Buddhist monks, nuns, Native Americans, Clark Gable, etc. interpret American history. And finally the promise of "The Age of Aquarius."

Broadway inched slowly into some of the more radical themes introduced in Hair. In 1970 the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company explored the relationships of various couples amongst themselves and with their friend, the confirmed bachelor Robert. When he visits one couple, Jenny and David, they share a joint and demand that Robert tell them why he hasn't married. It might be the marijuana that brings to life Robert's depictions of the women that he's dated.

Speaking of couples, the 1977 musical I Love My Wife not only had pot smoking, but the whole idea of the show was two couples having a foursome. Of course, it being Broadway the whole thing was handled with humor and in the end not much happens at all. 

Since then, drugs and drug references have slowed on Broadway. Perhaps because smoking dope, or tripping, isn't controversial anymore. But folks are still falling and in the case of Hamilton, it leaves one character "Helpless."

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Sep
29

Julie Andrews...Broadway Star

Were she to have offered more Broadway musical performances, Julie Andrews would have been in the pantheon with other women who achieved a kind of immorality through their appearances on the Great White Way. Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing—they all devoted the majority of their careers to Broadway.

It’s funny that with only four Broadway appearances, one off-Broadway revue, and one original musical on television, Julie Andrews is still thought of as a Broadway star.

Most of her fame goes back to astounding performance as Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.  And much of the credit of her performance is due to the show’s director, Moss Hart, who literally locked himself in a room with her and practically beat out a performance from the young woman.

She didn’t have a great deal of stage experience before My Fair Lady. She began her career as a child taking voice lessons and impressing her teachers with her four octave range and clear tones.

She began her professional career at the age of 10 appearing with her parents on stage. Two years later she was “discovered” by impresario Val Parnell who put her on the West End stage in the revue, Starlight Roof.  She stopped the show and three years later she was tapped for a Royal Command Performance. Television and radio followed and her fame grew.

Her first stage appearances were in pantomimes which didn’t require much in the acting department. Then at age 18 she had her first real role in Sandy Wilson’s musical spoof of ‘20s musicals, The Boy Friend. The show was a hit and a year later it transferred to Broadway and she became the toast of Broadway.

With such a slight resume she was cast in My Fair Lady and, as the cliché goes, a star was born. And while starring in that role, Richard Rodgers, who had wanted to cast her in Pipe Dream, instead cast her in the television musical of Cinderella.

Television appearances followed before she was cast in another Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. The cast and score were magnificent but the script left much to be desired and Andrews would not appear on the stage for 33 years! Of course, she did star in the largest grossing film musical of all time, The Sound of Music and followed that with a very successful career in Hollywood.

In 1993, a Stephen Sondheim revue, Putting It Together, marked her return to the stage at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The show sold out based on her being cast but it did not receive good reviews.

Two years later, she made a notable appearance in the musical Victor/Victoria but to little acclaim. But the show was not a success despite Andrews’ inclusion in the cast.

Since then she has directed many shows from regional theatres like Goodspeed Opera House to a recent revival of My Fair Lady in Australia.

And yet, despite her small career on Broadway we still think of her as a Broadway star rather than a movie star. And for her two best-known roles in My Fair Lady and Camelot she will always be a Broadway star. It shows the power of Broadway success in the minds of the public.

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Sep
15

Everything I Know I Learned from Musical Theatre

It’s back-to-school time and our fearless leader, Andy, has given us the subject “Teaching.” Instead of giving you, our faithful readers, a list of musical theatre’s teaching songs like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific and everyone’s favorite, “Every Little Girl Can Teach Me” from Theodore & Company, I’ve decided to explore musicals that actually taught things. From historical figures and events to the way we should lead our lives.

Let’s start with the facts of history. Now, of course, none of these musicals were written as lessons, and there’s usually a love story set against the historical events they depict. Nevertheless they still can introduce audiences to the general events upon which they are set.

The two shows that are most like actual history lessons (though amazingly entertaining) are Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s current mega-hit Hamilton. But these two shows don’t only deal in the facts but they also dramatize their stories through the experiences and emotions of their characters.

Other shows offer us more traditional musical theatre stories that are set against historical events that show the effects of history on the lives of its characters. I’d put South Pacific at the top of this list. It’s difficult today to realize the true impact of this story when it was first produced. Everyone in the US knew someone who had served during World War II, and they knew its horrors. Against the fun of “Honey Bun” and the romance of “This Nearly Was Mine” was the reality of these men and woman dying for their country. In fact, Lt. Cable is killed when on a mission. Everyone talks about “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (which is an important lesson song), but the overall arc of South Pacific is an important history lesson on its own.

Other historically-set shows that illuminate the time in which take place are The Rothschilds, Fiddler on the Roof, and Juno, to name a few. The historic events that unfold during these shows are not just a background.  They actually drive the narratives. Meyer Rothschild and family as well as the residents of Anatevka have to deal with the anti-Semitism of their times. In Juno, as in Sean O’Casey’s original play, the characters are coping with “The Troubles” of the Irish rebellion, its horrors, and its effect on the family.

Of course, not all historically-based musicals are quite as serious as those above. Politics are a dicey subject for musicals, but Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! views the New York of the time with seriousness and humor, qualities that they also inject into  their Fiddler. More lighthearted but still carrying a potent message are the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘em Eat Cake.

Show Boat is set against a background that seems always current. But Show Boat doesn’t wield a hammer in getting its points across. “Ol’ Man River” is no less impactful or have less depth of feeling because it lets its audience infer what life is really like on the Mississippi for a segment of the population. And Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy has a serious subject, the American Revolution, but treats it ever-so-amusingly in the “Battle of Murray Hill” where Mrs. Murray and her girls distract the British high command with feminine wiles so that the Yankees can move their troops into place. The fact that this is based on a true story only makes it all the more delightful.

There are, of course, shows that really wield a hammer. Especially those of Marc Blitzstein (see Juno above). His The Cradle Will Rock itself became of of political and sociological interest when the government tried to shut it down and the intrepid theatre company grabbed the piano, wheeled it with the cast to another theatre where they performed the show. And there was another mark of defiance, Actors Equity would not let them perform their show on the stage so the actors placed themselves among the audience members in the orchestra section. Oh, and have a listen to No for an Answer for even more intense politics.

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Aug
25

Barbara Cook

There were four great female stars of the American Musical Theatre: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, and Barbara Cook. All had their unique appeal. Merman’s voice and bravado was her primary asset but she could also display vulnerability when necessary. Mary Martin had an all-American homespun character with a terrific voice and a sly sexiness that served her well in her earliest roles. Gwen Verdon also had that vulnerable quality and lots of personality. She was a good actress and singer and had what none of the other three had, a remarkable dancing ability. It would be fair to say she was the greatest dancer in Broadway history. Parenthetically, it’s interesting that these four women as well as gentlemen stars of Broadway such as John Raitt, Alfred Drake, and Richard Kiley never had much of a film or television career.

Now we come back to Barbara Cook. Of course, her voice was resplendent and she could interpret a song brilliantly. And in her earliest years she, also had a sexy quality matched with a fully developed backbone (witness The Music Man and The Gay Life) and also a softness (She Loves Me, anyone?) that made her irresistible to audiences. I interviewed her for NPR and asked her how she got a non-singing role in Jules’s Feiffer’s play Little Murders. She responded, “What did you think I was doing in all those shows between songs?” She was right, of course, though she only appeared in three plays on the Rialto. And once she had weighed out of ingénue roles she recreated herself as a cabaret, concert and recording star.

While theatergoers and Broadway aficionados knew the work of Barbara Cook she was still relatively unknown. But when she started singing in clubs, concert halls, recordings, and television, her fame grew wider. And the arrangements of longtime musical partner Wally Harper fitted her perfectly and helping in defining her style to a wide audience. You can hear the evolution of their partnership with albums like It’s Better With a Band and Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.

How many Broadway singers from the 1970s on have achieved as a great a success out in the musical world at large as Barbara Cook. Jerry Orbach was widely known for his work on Law & Order but not for his singing talents. In fact, his sole solo recording was made up of songs written for Off-Broadway. Perhaps Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone who both have also had successful television careers in addition to their Broadway and concert work.

But Barbara Cook stands alone as a Broadway singer who reached a wide, general audience after her Broadway career had concluded. And even if she only had a Broadway musical theatre career or only had a career singing off the stage she still would be celebrated as a great singer.

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