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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.


Holidays Mixtape

Folks, hope you’re having a Happy Hannukah if that’s your thing. Or no holiday at all of you don’t believe. But we all have to agree that as far as theatre songs go it’s Christmas all the way. Ironically many, if not most of the great Christmas songs were written by writers of the Jewish persuasion. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes America great!!

There’s a plethora of great Christmas songs from musical theatre. Here’s my list of the best known ones listed alphabetically by show. I think it would make a really terrific mix tape (mix CD?) (mix playlist?).

  1. “A New Deal for Christmas” – Annie – Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin
  2. “Hail to Christmas” – Babes in Toyland – Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough
  3. “Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year” – Catch Me If You Can – Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman
  4. “A Christmas Buche” – Charlotte Sweet – Gerald Jay Maroem, Michael Colby
  5. “A Christmas Song” – Elf – Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin
  6. “Tomorrow Is Christmas” – The Gift of the Magi – Peter Eckstrom
  7. “Blissful Christmas” – Gone with the Wind – Harold Rome
  8. “Greenwillow Christmas” – Greenwillow – Frank Loesser
  9. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – Here’s Love – Meredith Willson (OK I know he didn’t write this for the show but it’s in the show so it counts). And also “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (sung in counterpoint to the above).
  10. “White Christmas” – Holiday Inn – Irving Berlin (see above)
  11. “Lovers on Christmas Eve” – I Love My Wife – Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart
  12. “Christmas Child” – Irma La Douce – Margurite Monnot, Julian More, David Heneker
  13. “Christmas 1” and “Christmas 2” – John and Jen – Andrew Lippa
  14. “Xmas Shopping” – Just for Openers – Rod Warren (You’ll have to track down a copy of the LP of this Julius Monk revue…sorry)
  15. “We Need a Little Christmas” – Mame – Jerry Herman
  16. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Meet Me in St. Louis – Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
  17. “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse” – Oh What a Lovely War – Billy Bennett (ibid)
  18. “That’s What I’d Like for Christmas” – Pickwick – Cyril Ornadel, Leslie Bricusse
  19.  “Christmas Day” – Promises, Promises – Burt Bacharach and Hal David
  20. “Christmas at Hampton Court” – Rex – Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick
  21. “Merry Christmas” and “Twelve Days to Christmas” – She Loves Me – Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
  22. “Christmas Eve” – Sherry – Laurence Rosenthal, James Lipton
  23. “At Christmas Time” – Song of Norway – Alexander Borodin, Robert Wright, George Forrest
  24. “I Don’t Remember Christmas” – Starting Here, Starting Now – Richard Maltby and David Shire
  25. “Christmas Carol” – Streets of New York – Richard B. Chodosh, Barry Alan Grael
  26. “White Christmas” – White Christmas – Irving Berlin (see reason above)
  27. “Winter Wonderland” – Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 – Felix Bernard, Dick Smith (ibid)

Well that’s what I could come up with anyway. Please let me know if there’s anything I missed.

And have yourselves a very happy holiday of your choice and a very happy new year!

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Favorites From the Fifties

The 1950s were a time of transition in musical theater history just as were the 1920s.

In the ‘20s, the old guard of Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml and other operetta composers were slowing down and being replaced by a new breed of songwriters. Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin led the way to be quickly followed by George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, and others.

By the time the ‘50s turned to the ‘60s most of the these composers were slowing down (with the sole exception of Rodgers who worked until the day he died). The ‘50s saw the emergence of a new group of musical theater writers including Jones and Schmidt, Kander and Ebb, Strouse and Adams, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin and others.

Just as in the 1920s, most of these teams honed their skills by writing for revues before tackling full-blown scores. These new writers brought a freshness to the form while still following the basic tenants of music theater writing, especially an emphasis on the skill and craft of writing songs and their purpose of songs within a show. Sadly, that craft is rarely evident in today’s Broadway shows.

But back to the ‘50s. Just as the ‘20s brought a new life to the musical so did the ‘50s. And the shows produced in that decade were a reflection of the optimism that swept America following the Second World War.

Finally, before I give a list of some of my favorite shows of the time, it should be noted that even flop shows often had marvelous scores. Also, absent from today’s musical theater.

In no apparent order:

Li’l Abner
This is certainly an under-appreciated musical that doesn’t get it’s due for its sly agenda. Li’l Abner is a hilariously playful musical that, like Al Capp’s original comic strip, is subtly critical of the political atmosphere of the ’50s especially the whole military industrial complex. The score by Johnny Mercer is just as witty and pointed as the comic strip. Unfortunately, as a not-so-recent Encores! production showed, it’s an extremely difficult show to put on now, as modern sensibilities don’t understand the tone required in performance. Luckily, with most of the original Broadway cast intact, the film version is extremely faithful to the show and includes Michael Kidd’s fantastic choreography.

Wish You Were Here
A number of decades back, Frank Rich bemoaned that we don’t have new Harold Rome musicals, and I second the notion. Rome is sadly under the radar today, but his shows had a wonderful spirit and his music and lyrics celebrated life like no other songwriter. Wish You Were Here is a snapshot of a time long passed. The title song became a huge standard (back when we had standards from Broadway musicals). Compare the heartfelt yearnings of that song with the more playful tunes in the score, and you see a show about regular people, living their lives with all their foibles. Rome made gentle fun of his characters, and the sweetness of the score is a delightful contrast to other shows’ brash qualities.

Here’s Harold Rome’s next show in the ‘50s and it couldn’t be more different than Wish You Were Here. This is a warm-hearted show and a bittersweet one also. Sadly, the film only used the songs as underscoring. It’s a marvelous movie under Josh Logan’s direction and an expert cast. It’s fun to watch the movie and pause to play the original cast album in the appropriate spots. This is one of the most beautiful scores whose ballads actually sound like real people’s emotions if they could express them as poetically as Rome does. Not like the typical overblown Broadway ballads of many shows.

Destry Rides Again
All right, all right. So, I really love Harold Rome’s work. Just these three shows show his remarkable versatility. I won’t go on and on about him. Just listen to this original cast recording.

The Girl in Pink Tights
Remember when you used to get a record (or later a CD) and make an immediate judgment and never get to the second side of the recording (Christine anyone?)? Well, I didn’t like Sigmund Romberg and Leo Robin’s score to this show. Decades later I picked it up again and I fell in love with it. There’s the requisite beautiful ballad, “Lost in Loveliness” but also songs with exceptionally funny lyrics by Leo Robin, one of the few lyricists who can actually put a joke into a song. “You’ve Got to Be a Little Crazy” is a love letter to the craziness that is show business. The other full-out comic song is “Love is the Funniest Thing.”  And, another ballad, “My Heart Won’t Say Goodbye,” is lushly romantic. This has turned into one of my favorite scores. Note: If you want a more complete version of the show, Ben Bagley recorded a slightly truncated version of the stunningly beautiful ballet.

The Golden Apple
Here’s another show that can’t be revived again. The score by Jerome Moross and John Latouche is romantic, intelligent and truthful (!). Sadly, today’s audiences don’t know the history of Helen of Troy, and so much of the show goes over their heads. Back when the show opened in 1954, schools still taught history and the classics. That’s one reason yet another Encores! revival bombed. That revival also illustrated another reason a successful revival is almost impossible today: society’s relationship with sex has changed. As originally staged, the song “Lazy Afternoon” was perhaps the sexiest moment in musical theater history. Languid and teasing with a real fire burning under the surface, the song bordered on obscene as originally staged. Today, the sexuality is front and center, no undercurrents, and treated as a joke. Believe me, it wasn’t in the original production.

Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg were a perfect songwriting team. Unfortunately, Harburg’s always being right annoyed his collaborators (which is why after the smash hit Finian’s Rainbow, Burton Lane refused to work with him. In fact, Lane and Harburg didn’t speak to each other from rehearsals through opening night. Though Lane did later propose to Harburg that they become an official team (but Harburg turned him down).

Oh yes, we were talking about Jamaica. Well, the libretto is mainly an excuse for Lena Horne to strut her stuff, and the songwriting team gave her songs perfectly crafted to her talents. And, speaking of steamy romance, Horne’s leading man was Ricardo Montalban which led to sparks on stage (and possibly off). In any event, Harburg has never been in better form. And songs like “Push de Button” are tremendously witty and verge on special material much like Kander and Ebb would do with their songs.

Here’s an extremely underrated score. Why? Because the original cast album is lacking the fire and energy of the best cast albums. Therefore, the excellent score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer isn’t showcased to its fullest. But these songs excel, as you would expect from two masters of the American popular song. My god, they wrote “Blues in the Night!!” I don’t know what to tell you but give a listen to the album.

I’ve tried to avoid the obvious choices (see the list below) but I’d like to have a few words about the following show because I think it’s important to do so.

My Fair Lady
Here’s an obvious choice but a show that’s often taken for granted. And speaking of shows that are difficult to stage now, My Fair Lady is unnecessarily caught up in the “Me Too” movement. This is an almost perfect musical that many consider as the epitome of the art form. Lerner and Loewe, working under Moss Hart’s guidance, examine the foibles of men, women, society, etc. Like other great shows, it revolves around human fallibilities and sometimes today it seems we want all the characters in musicals to be entirely politically correct in every way. And, sad to say perhaps, human’s just aren’t perfect as much as we strive to be.

Not to mention Guys and Dolls, The King and I, The Music Man, Wonderful Town, Kismet, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Candide, West Side Story, The Most Happy Fella, Gypsy, The Sound of Music, and Fiorello!


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“What’s Wrong with These Kids Today?”

‘Twas ever thus through history. And musical history too. Face it, we were all jerks between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. All along the way at every birthday we thought we had it all figured out. The amazing thing is perhaps no matter how old you are you never quite have everything figured out.

And teenagers in past musical theater are mostly delightfully lost. The first stirrings of adulthood. Beginning relationships. Finding out who we are and our place in the world. All themes explored through song and story.

Older musicals of screen and stage tended to romanticize youth. Think of Judy Garland at MGM. Seemingly the eternal teenager, (she even sings Roger Edens’ “In-Between” in the film Love Finds Andy Hardy, which can be heard on a Decca Masters Compilation), Judy romped with Mickey Rooney, never growing up in films or the public’s eyes.

Her most famous film is the classic The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale finds herself in a strange land with a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man. Oh, and a couple of witches. Of course, it’s all a dream. A dream that Freud would have a field day with. In today’s musical, Wicked, Glinda and her arch enemy Elphaba inhabit an Oz that isn’t quite as nice as the “marvelous land of Oz” of the film. Elphaba is horribly teased and ostracized while Glinda just wants to be “Popular.”

Back to Judy Garland, she created the role of Esther Smith in the MGM picture Meet Me in St. Louis. She’s interested in “The Boy Next Door” but he still considers her a child. Of course, he comes to his senses. The flop Broadway version couldn’t capture the spirit or innocence of that time.

Another flop Broadway show based on an MGM musical is also about a boy and a girl who slowly becomes a woman in his eyes. That show is Gigi with a glorious score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. The male lead Gaston, singing the title song, realizes that he’s in love with the much younger Gigi. In the flop Broadway production Gigi sings, “In This Wide, Wide World” which Lerner used to replace, “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” In the song, Gigi tells Gaston that she knows he loves other women but she “would rather be mis’rable with you than without you.” Cheery, no? In the horribly disfigured Broadway revival, “Say a Prayer” was sung by Mamita and the show closed with Gigi singing “In This Wide, Wide World.” “Say a Prayer” (originally written for My Fair Lady) was the better fit as sung in the film version.

Lerner wrote about another young girl edging toward womanhood in the musical Paint Your Wagon, again with Loewe. This time the ingénue is Jennifer who falls in love with an older, romantic young dreamer. But Jennifer doesn’t quite know “What’s Going on Here?” Naturally, the final curtain falls and the two lovers find their way to their own happiness.

Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’ stunning score for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn finds the young Francie soothed by her father who explains she’s just having “Growing Pains.” But it’s not only girls who have growing pains. Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, featured a young Robert Morse as Richard Miller, sweetly clueless as he sings the first act closer, “That’s How It Starts.” Songwriter Bob Merrill understood the naïveté of youth and an awakening to adult feelings..

Another show set in approximately the same time as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is 1951’s Seventeen with a sadly underestimated score by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon. Seventeen revolved around the innocent love/romance between 17-year-old Willie Baxter and the cutesy flirt Lola Pratt. Ann Crowley played Lola and in the lead role of Willie was a young Kenneth Nelson. Willie sort of grows up by the end of the show and sings, “I Could Get Married.”

Seven years later Nelson would again play a teenager in a little show titled The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. In that show, Nelson’s Matt falls in love with the girl next door, Luisa played fetchingly by Rita Gardner. But the teenagers’ fathers are confused by the youngsters’ love, and they’re absolutely against it. They don’t know quite what to do about it and sing “Never Say No,” pretending they know exactly what to do to manipulate their children. Needless to say, they have no clue.

Jones and Schmidt revisited two children with Grover’s Corners, their musical version of Our Town.  It’s a true tragedy of the theater that this show suffered a horrible fate with the underlying rights withdrawn. It’s a remarkably beautiful, heartfelt score, perhaps Jones and Schmidt’s best (you can hear four of Jones and Schmidt’s demos on Jones & Schmidt: Hidden Treasures). In the show, like the play, George Webb and Emily Gibbs find themselves in love but think themselves not quite ready for marriage yet married they become. And the second act... well, you’ll have to discover that for yourself.

Eliot Green is the leading character in the underrated musical Bar Mitzvah Boy by Jule Styne and Don Black. It recently had a triumphant production at New York’s York Theatre. Turning thirteen, Eliot is frankly afraid of his responsibilities when he “becomes a man” at his bar mitzvah. By the end of the show he pulls it together and sings “That’s How It’s Done” and Eliot discovers he really is becoming a man.

Speaking of becoming a man not symbolically like Eliot Green but actually waking up to find you are really a man is the entire plot of the musical Big. Okay, technically Josh Baskin is a 12-year-old boy living in New Jersey, one year from being a teenager. He’s confused that whenever he spies13-year-old Cynthia Benson something strange is stirring. He wishes he was a man (a common trope in musicals and plays) and actually becomes one to his delight and later his consternation (another trope). When toward the end of the show he sings, “When You’re Big,” we know he’s ready to become a boy again.

Grease and Hairspray both take a lighthearted, satirical look at teenage life in the 1950s. But both also explore serious subjects. The teenagers at Grease’s Rydell High School deal with teenage pregnancy, rebellion, and sex. And the teenagers in Hairspray's Baltimore take a stand against racism. Both shows are comedies but with a message. It’s a far cry from the teenagers in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ Bye Bye Birdie where Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio thinks she’s all grown up when she sings, “How Lovely to Be a Woman.”

Speaking of teenagers and sex, some children find themselves in an adult world against their better judgment. In the flop musical by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry, Lolita, My Love, the character sings “All You Can Do Is Tell Me You Love Me” Her lyric begins:

The kids in this town—
Go out and you’ll see—
They’re all having fun,
Excepting for me.
And I could be, too,
Excepting for you.
‘Cause all you can do
Is tell me you love me.

Not exactly same problem as other musical theatre teenagers face.

And in current musicals teenagers can also have serious problems.

In Dear Evan Hansen the stakes are much higher than musicals of the past. The title character can’t quite fit in with his fellow high school students. When a boy commits suicide Even concocts a story that brings solace to the parents of the dead boy but it becomes a lie that increasingly makes the truth harder and harder for Evan to admit. When he finally owns up to the deceit he sings, “Words Fail” and by the end of the show it seems that Evan’s lies actually did sooth the family of the boy and Evan is taught a valuable lesson.

And the most current show of all is The Prom, still in previews at this writing. Like Grease and Hairspray it’s primarily a comedy but the theme of this modern musical is homophobia by students and faculty alike.

These modern shows are a far cry from Liesl declaring that she is “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. Teenagers today are more sophisticated and know a lot more that kids their age did in past decades. Some of their innocence is gone and that’s a bad thing but also they’re more involved in issues of the day and that’s a good thing.


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Be Back Soon!

Ken's traveling, and his column will return in two weeks.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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