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Making Use of Mother Nature

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Tomorrow is National Greenpeace Day, so naturally we are making lists of songs that reference the environment and Mother Nature. A few are simply about the lady in question, but most use her as a vehicle for exploring situation and character. Here is my version of a green playlist.

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” from Oklahoma!
What better beginning than this beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein opening number from their initial collaboration in 1943? It’s a testament to the vast power that can be unleashed by the wedding of the right words and music. Here it’s done with such simplicity that it even starts offstage. Many have sung it, but nobody beats the great original Curly, Alfred Drake.

“Beautiful, Beautiful World,” from The Apple Tree
Adam is bathing while singing this celebration of the joys of the Garden of Eden by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. What you can’t tell from the 1966 cast album is that at the end of it, he sees a lion suddenly devour a lamb and realizes that Eve has eaten of the forbidden fruit. Out of town in Boston the song was used as an establishing song for Eve, and Alan Alda sings that fuller version for the OBCR, not the shortened one he performed on stage at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

“Look Around,” from The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman added this gentle lament so late in previews that a program insert had to be included to let opening-night audiences know about it. In 1991 it was about heedless industrialization; in the face of global warming, it has a new resonance. As the titular American humorist Keith Carradine accompanied himself on guitar and gave a beautifully understated account of it.

“I Said Good Morning,” from A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green
This frenzied greeting of all of the lord’s creations was written for but cut from the film It’s Always Fair Weather, so Comden and Green repurposed it as an opening number for their two-person revue of their own songs that played the Golden and Morosco theatres in 1959. Never were good manners so debilitating. The tune is by André Previn.

“What a Lot of Flowers,” from Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Peter O’Toole sang this Leslie Bricusse paean to the beauty of nature with an inspired blend of bewilderment and rapture as his old maid schoolteacher reacted to having married a much younger star of the London musical stage. Alas, the soundtrack of the 1969 film is not available digitally, but you can hear John Mills sing it on the cast recording of the movie’s stage adaptation, which played England’s Chichester Festival Theatre in 1982.

“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Our recent loss of the great Barbara Harris sent me to my video collection to watch her sing this Alan Jay Lerner–Burton Lane classic back in 1965 in character as the psychically gifted Daisy Gamble, who can make flowers grow by talking to them, on the Bell Telephone Hour (catch it on YouTube). I always wish Lerner hadn’t cut the first A of the second AABA chorus: “Bloom buttercup/Buds are better up/Where in case of nuptials you’re handy.”

“Grow for Me,” from Little Shop of Horrors
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken present the dark side of Lerner and Lane’s tune with this lament about a mysterious plant that won’t grow. “I’ve given you sunlight/I’ve given you rain/Looks like you’re not happy/’Less I open a vein!” Sad sack florist assistant Seymour Krelbourn makes the first of many mistakes by sharing his blood with Audrey II. I worked in the Orpheum Theatre box office for this 1982 show and often stuck my head in to watch this number. It always worked.

“Farming,” from Let’s Face It
One would hardly expect to find urban sophisticate Cole Porter extolling the great outdoors, but this devilish list song is a spoof of a 1941 fad for celebrities seeking the simple joys of country living. Danny Kaye introduced it in his first starring role on Broadway. There isn’t an OBCR, alas, but you can hear him sing a pop version on Danny Kaye: 43 of His Essential Songs. Love that the gay joke about George Raft’s bull flew under the radar and onto the radio.

“World Weary,” from This Year of Grace
Noël Coward is another unlikely nature lover, though he did eventually have country homes in Jamaica and Switzerland, which may perhaps explain the lines “I want an ocean blue/Great big trees/A bird’s-eye view/Of the Pyrenees.” However, as this revue song was written in 1928, before those real estate acquisitions, perhaps it inspired them. Of course, the Pyrenees are in France and Spain, not Switzerland. But it’s harder to rhyme “Alps.” You can hear the Master sing it in his club act on Noël Coward at Las Vegas.

“City Lights,” from The Act
Fred Ebb proves that he really was an outdoor misanthrope in this catchy 1977 showstopper, writing a wicked attack on the pleasures of nature in the form of a number from nightclub performer Michelle Craig’s act. These days composer John Kander is pretty dismissive of his work on this Liza Minnelli vehicle, but I’ve always loved this song. “I won’t breath nothin’ I can’t see” indeed!

“It Wonders Me,” from Plain and Fancy
I have a special fondness for this score by Albert Hague (music) and Arnold B. Horwitt for the 1955 Broadway musical set in Pennsylvania’s Amish community, in part because Equity Library Theatre did a fine off-Broadway production of it in 1980 during my last season of employment there as theatre manager. Donna Bullock was a radiant Katie Yoder and sang our virginal heroine’s establishing song praising the autumn countryside beautifully. Oh, and this was the first New York job for one of Broadway’s top musical directors, Kristen Blodgette, who was most recently seen on stage at the Palace Theatre conducting a 40-piece orchestra and Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. We grew up together in Fairview Park, Ohio, and I got her the gig.

“Penguins Must Sing,” from Birds of Paradise
Winnie Holzman (book and lyrics) and David Evans (book and music) started this 1987 off-Broadway musical about an amateur theatre group producing a musical based on Chekhov’s The Seagull as a master’s thesis at NYU. This nutty number from the musical within the musical opened Act 2 and had Andrew Hill Newman, Donna Murphy, and J.K. Simmons cavorting in penguin suits while lamenting that the world is threatened with extinction “due to the ice age and federal cutbacks.” The score contains one gem after another, and the cast also included Todd Graff, John Cunningham, Christa Moore, Mary Beth Peil, and Barbara Walsh. If you don’t know it, you should go get it.

“The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole,” from Closer Than Ever
Let’s stay with the animal kingdom with this Richard Maltby Jr.–David Shire song, which was written for their 1983 musical Baby but eliminated when the character who sang it was cut from the show. In it a scientist uses the mating habits of various animals to justify single motherhood. Lynne Wintersteller introduced it in 1990, and Christiane Noll inherited it in the York Theatre Company’s 2012 revival. You can’t go wrong with either.

“Heartbreak Country,” from Giant
Making up after their first fight, conservative cattle baron Bick Benedict confesses his love of the Texas land to his liberal new bride from the East, who vows to learn to love it too. Michael John LaChiusa’s majestic, muscular music evokes Aaron Copland and the Texas range in equal measure. This ambitious 2012 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel deserved a longer run, but at least we have the OCR.

“I Remember,” from Evening Primrose
The beautiful Ella has lived nocturnally as a prisoner in a department store since she was 6, and in this wistful ballad Stephen Sondheim evokes her dim memories of the outside world—sky, snow, ice, rain, leaves, trees—through indoor similes such as ink, feathers, vinyl, strings, paper, and coat racks. Charmian Carr—Liesl in The Sound of Music—introduced it on TV in 1967, but as that recording is not available digitally, here’s Theresa McCarthy’s take on it.

“Poems,” from Pacific Overtures
In another Sondheim song, two Japanese men, a “samurai of little consequence” and a fisherman, trade haikus about their great loves on a long journey by foot. The former loves his wife and the latter loves America, which he visited accidentally and illegally. In their poems they praise their beloveds using imagery mostly drawn from nature. Pre-Broadway they sang “Leaves,/I love her like the leaves,/Changing winter into spring,/And the change is everything.” Haikus, however, don’t rhyme, and so for Broadway Sondheim replaced his inadvertent one by changing the third line to “Changing green to pink to gold.”

“Sand,” from the unproduced film musical Singing Out Loud
Completing a Sondheim trio, this 1992 song ingeniously compares being in love to the physical properties of sand. It was supposed to be the bad opening number of a movie musical in trouble in the editing room, but I think it’s pretty nifty. Celia Berk does a suitably slinky job with it on her CD You Can’t Rush Spring.

“The Desert Song,” from The Desert Song
In keeping with our arid theme, how about this 1926 Sigmund Romberg–Otto Harbach–Oscar Hammerstein II title song? It doesn’t get swoonier than “Blue heaven and you and I/And sand kissing a moonlit sky/The desert breeze singing a lullaby/Only stars above you/To say I love you.” The dashing Red Shadow, leading the Moroccans in revolt against the occupying French, is by day the nerdy Pierre, son of the French commanding general. See? Superman wasn’t the first hero to hide behind glasses. Wilbur Evans and Kitty Carlisle do the honors here.

“Under the Sunset Tree,” from Darling of the Day
Star Vincent Price didn’t have the pipes to do justice to this gorgeous Jule Styne–E.Y. Harburg ballad from their 1968 flop based on Arnold Bennett’s comic novel Buried Alive. However, when the silver-throated Patricia Routledge joins in, you hear at once the song’s quality. Harburg’s lyric uses nature imagery most affectingly to depict an unlikely middle-aged love affair.

“Make Our Garden Grow,” from Candide
This 1956 Richard Wilbur–Leonard Bernstein chorale is the mother of all finales, so I’m ending with it. I can still remember hearing it for the first time as a junior in high school. When it hit the a cappella section, I went goose bumps all over. And you know what? I still do.

 


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