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Favorites From the Fifties

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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.

Fanny
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.

Jamaica
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.

Saratoga
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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