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Lerner & Loewe: The Lusty Month of May

In the immortal words of Alan Jay Lerner, “Tra la, it’s May, the lusty Month of May” as we start to see the gradual advance into warmer temperatures and those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Right after I open my eyes on May 1st and announce “Rabbit Rabbit” to the waiting physically distant world (anyone else?!), I have to cue up this tune. ‘Camelot’ has long been one of my favorite shows with Lerner’s lyrics that trip off the tongue and Frederick Loewe’s gorgeous, lush orchestrations that make me hanker for the days of the Golden Age 50-piece orchestras. (If you haven’t recently watched the Finale Ultimo from the film version with Richard Harris, I would highly recommend watching and subsequently weeping. Theatre therapy is real and potent stuff, folks.)

With sparkling vocals by the inimitable Queen, Dame Julie Andrews (or Vanessa Redgrave – pick your poison), it perfectly evokes that feeling of gaiety that has perhaps been lacking in our daily lives just this instant. All the more reason then to turn this on and romp ‘round the May Pole before our third mid-morning snack! 

Word nerd that I am, I have always been bowled over by the ease with which Lerner manages to meld highly intelligent rhyme scheme with that devilish cheek that is on parade in this fun, frivolous song. Just below are the lyrics for you to glimpse and crack a smile over. Because, after all, “It’s May, it’s May, the month of great dismay when all the world is brimming with fun, wholesome or un…” 

Thanks for indulging me with a whole week of sharing the music that bolsters my spirits, fills my heart, and makes this time of physical distancing just ever so slightly more bearable. I’ll see you back here tomorrow for a little bit more Golden and a whole lot more Berlin. 

Author’s note: As of today, NYFOS begins streaming of our first ever Virtual Gala, featuring performances from this past season and live performances from our friends and NYFOS alums all over the world. A donation of any amount will grant you access to this exclusive curated performance through the end of the month. Join us, won’t you please!

Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it’s here, that shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear
It’s May, it’s May, that gorgeous holiday
When every maiden prays that her lad will be a cad
It’s mad, it’s gay, a libelous display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes
Everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May

Whence this fragrance wafting through the air?
What sweet feelings does its scent transmute?
Whence this perfume floating everywhere?
Don’t you know it’s that dear forbidden fruit

Tra la la la la, that dear forbidden fruit, tra la la la la
Tra la la la la, tra la, tra la, tra la la la la la la la la la
It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day, one you’ll always rue
It’s May, it’s May, the month of yes you may
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-
It’s wild, it’s gay, a blot in every way
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast

The lusty month of may
Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it’s here, that shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear
It’s May, it’s May, the month of great dismay
When all the world is brimming with fun, wholesome or un-
It’s mad, it’s gay, a libelous display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes
Everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May

Alan Jay Lerner & André Previn: Fiasco

AND
Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe: A Snake in the Grass

Villain songs are fun to hear and to perform.  I suspect they are fun to write too.  These two—minor blips in a major career—have a delicious playfulness that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.

“Fiasco” is from Coco (1969). The titular Coco Chanel was played by Katharine Hepburn. She was no singer, but her tremendous star power was ample compensation for Lerner and the fans who poured in to see her. René Auberjonois won a Tony Award for the supporting role of Sebastian, a flamboyant young designer trying to sabotage Chanel’s return from retirement. She catches on in time to present her new collection properly, but the curtain falls on Act One before she (or the audience) knows how it was received. Sebastian’s giddy schadenfreude opens Act Two.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLpONi1_1Lg

“A Snake in the Grass” is from Lerner & Loewe’s last full score, a 1974 movie musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Loewe had retired after the stresses of Camelot and writing these songs a decade later was a very happy and creative reunion. (They had no control over how they were used and Lerner was furious about how the film turned out.) As the Little Prince tells the snake at the start of this clip, he’s left his home planet and has been traveling the universe to learn things. The snake (Bob Fosse in an over-the-top performance) offers a fast trip home: “how relaxed you can be, posthumously.”

I couldn’t find an online copy to include with this blog, but there is a CD with Lerner singing and Loewe playing all of The Little Prince.  The CD is worth the effort to find, because it’s the only recording of them together.  Lerner charmingly discusses and sings several of his biggest hits (and a dropped song from My Fair Lady) on the CD of his 1971 appearance in the 92 St Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series. “Lyrics By Lerner” is a 1955 studio album where Lerner and Kaye Ballard sing to arrangements by Billy Taylor.

Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein: Take Care of This House

One of the joys of my work on The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner was getting to know Love Life and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, fascinating, flawed shows that don’t have original cast albums.  Both are concept musicals with brilliant songs, unusual structures, and pointed social critiques.  Love Life, a dark, time-traveling “vaudeville” about marriage and money, written with Kurt Weill, had a respectable run in the 1948-49 Broadway season.  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a collaboration with Leonard Bernsteinwas a series of vignettes (many to do with federal tolerance of slavery) from the lives of several Presidents, First Ladies and a fictional pair of African-American servants, within a meta-theatrical frame. After disastrous tryouts, it limped to Broadway, opening on May 4, 1976 and closing on May 8.

A few songs from Love Life were covered by pop singers, notably “Here I’ll Stay.”  The most enduring song from 1600 is “Take Care of This House,” which Abigail Adams sings to a runaway slave child who becomes a White House servant.  A song about cherishing the highest intentions of America’s founders is always relevant.

I like Julie Andrews’ rendition very much, and it includes the verse.

Bonus Track!
A very informal performance of “To Make Us Proud” from 1600 by WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon.

Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane: Too Late Now

Today’s song is one of my favorite ballads. It’s from the 1951 movie musical Royal Wedding, which is not a great film.  Lerner later said his own contributions made him cringe. But a score that has “Too Late Now,” “You’re All the World to Me” (to which Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling!) and the audacious “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You, When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life” is not chopped liver.

Royal Wedding was Lerner’s first Hollywood effort and he was teamed with composer Burton Lane, whose hits included “Everything I Have Is Yours,” “How About You?” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Old Devil Moon.” Lerner and Lane wrote a number of good songs together over the course of four collaborations — Royal Wedding, an unproduced movie musical of Huck Finn (1951-53) and the Broadway musicals On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965; with some new songs for the 1970 film), and Carmelina (1979). They found each other hard to work with, but kept hoping the results would be worth it.

So back to Royal Wedding…  It was a vehicle for Fred Astaire and the plot echoed Astaire’s personal history: he and his sister Adele had been a major musical comedy team, the toast of New York and London, where she fell in love with a British nobleman. Finding – and keeping – a leading lady for Royal Wedding proved complicated. June Allyson was cast, but became pregnant and couldn’t do the role.  Judy Garland began rehearsals, but was unable to keep to the schedule. Finally, Jane Powell stepped into the part, stayed in the part, and introduced this song, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

“Too Late Now” was written with Garland in mind. The music came first, and Lerner, who was back in New York, first heard it on the phone, long distance from California. This clip from the 1960s shows just how well the song suited Garland, but caveat emptor, she has altered some words.

Bonus track: Nancy LaMott, the first person I ever heard sing this song.

Lerner and Loewe: You Did It

If Alan Jay Lerner wrote nothing except My Fair Lady, he would have justly earned his place in Broadway’s pantheon. It was a magnificent artistic achievement and an enormous popular success— smashing all box office records. Among his other beloved Broadway and Hollywood musicals are Brigadoon, Gigi and Camelot, each giving decades of pleasure to audiences and performers.

A native New Yorker, Lerner grew up on Park Avenue, just a taxi ride from Broadway.  His father, an affluent retailer, loved musical theatre and took his young son to operettas, Gilbert & Sullivan, revues and jazz age romps. Soon enough, the boy aspired to write for the theatre. Lerner made his Broadway debut (with the lightweight and unsuccessful What’s Up) in 1943, the same year as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s game-changing Oklahoma!.

Lerner was an heir to the traditions of both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II.  He had a great gift for wordplay, but identified as a dramatist as much as a lyricist, responsible for every word and situation from curtain up to curtain down. He and his musical partners—he worked most often, and best, with Frederick Loewe; I’ll mention others later this week—wanted the plot, characterizations, words, music and dancing to cohere. Beyond that, Lerner understood human failings and loved his characters whatever their flaws.

I’ve chosen “You Did It” as today’s song because it is clever, well-crafted, understanding of both the men’s oblivious self-congratulations and Eliza’s exclusion, and really fun.

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe: I Could Have Danced All Night

Perhaps you’ve heard that 2018 is the centennial year of a major musical theatre writer. But did you know that Leonard Bernstein was not the only Broadway legend born in August 1918?

This week I invite you to celebrate lyricist, librettist and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner.
And what better way to start the festivities than the jubilant “I Could Have Danced All Night” from his 1956 masterwork My Fair Lady.

Though the words are quite simple, it was not easy to write. Before Lerner and Loewe hit on the perfect way to convey Eliza’s joy, and a hint of romance, they wrote other songs which they rejected for being too overtly about love.

Despite the pleasure the song gave to millions of listeners, Lerner had reservations. You’ll get a sense of his perfectionism and humor in the following. He said:

“I have a special loathing for lyrics in which the heart is metamorphosed and skips or leaps or jumps or ‘takes flight.’ I promised Fritz I would change it as soon as I could. As it turned out, I was never able to. In time it became far and away the most popular song Fritz and I have ever written. But to this day the lyric gives me cardiac arrest.”

# # #

In this clip, Audra McDonald gives a radiant performance (with Seth Rudetsky at the piano).
On the repeat it turns into a singalong and then goes wild.

 

Lerner and Loewe: On the Street Where You Live

I am a huge fan of Nancy Wilson. The timbre and versatility of her voice is incredible. I love the energy and spirit she brings to this incredibly unique version of this song. “On the Street Where You Live” from the musical My Fair Lady (with music by Frederick Loewe) was originally sung as a ballad by a man, but Nancy Wilson ups the tempo, adds some jazz, and makes it her own!

Eydie Gormé sings “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”

For my last selection this week, I am spotlighting Eydie Gormé.  A terrific entertainer and one of my all-time favorites.”  I use the word entertainer as besides great vocals, she always seemed to deliver on all levels.

She was born in Manhattan in August 1928 to Nessim and Fortuna Gormezano, Sephardic Jewish immigrants.  She got her big break and her recording debut in 1950 with the Tommy Tucker Orchestra and Don Brown. In 1953, she made her first television appearance, and met her future husband, singer Steve Lawrence, when they were booked for the original The TonightShow, hosted by Steve Allen.  She went on to have both successful solo and duo careers (with her husband) that lasted until her retirement in 2009.  She died four years later in August 2013.  Her solo career included crossover success in the Latin music market both on the domestic and international levels.

I’ve chosen a video clip from a 1966 Ed Sullivan show (I very well may have seen it then).  I was already aware of her by this time, mostly because of her 1963 pop hit “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.”

“What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” is from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever  (book & lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Burton Lane) that starred John Cullum and Barbara Harris.

The focus and intensity and emotion she brings to this performance is breathtaking.  And the way she sells it in simple “stand & deliver” style blows me away.  I get goosebumps every time I watch it.  Sadly I never heard her live and I had multiple opportunities.  Thankfully we have these classic performances on the internet accessible at just a few clicks.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this week.  Next week, I hope you will continue to listen as I bring you some holiday favorites.  And if you are enjoying this blog, please share it with others!

p.s. I also offer a second video of Gormé from about ten years earlier performing “I’ll take romance” (music by Ben Oakland, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II).  An interesting fact about this song, the opera singer Grace Moore premiered it in 1937.  Search it out and listen to her interpretation…a complete 180 from Gormé’s.

“What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2Llrp9TWqU

“I’ll Take Romance”

Leonard Bernstein: Take Care of This House

I had planned a different Leonard Bernstein tune to finish out my most enjoyable stint as “Song of the Day” blogger, but the events of last week compelled me to swap out my initial choice, so: some other time.

Politics and musical theater have always gone hand in glove, or, rather, iron fist in velvet glove.  There is something about the outsized egos of the political realm, the easy (and necessary) targets for satire, the unfettered public displays of enthusiasm and/or contempt that seem to find a felicitous home on the theatrical stage.  The first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize was Of Thee I Sing, a deliriously well-crafted spoof, written by the Gershwin brothers, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind back in the early days of the Depression.  I’ve always held a warm spot in my heart for that show, so imagine my great pleasure when Steve Blier asked me to resurrect a concert version that I built around the plot of Of Thee I Sing, plus dollops of two other Gershwin/Kaufman/Ryskind political satires, entitled “Mr. Gershwin Goes to Washington” for NYFOS.

We’ve pulled that concert out of the cabinet many times over the last dozen years or so for NYFOS, in a variety of venues.  The barbed hijinks of the material always resonated differently depending on the crucial political actualities of the day. The most benign of the three musicals, Of Thee I Sing, revolved around a president who gets mixed up with a romantic indiscretion that provokes an impeachment hearing; that part played pretty well for a few election cycles.  One other Gershwin satire we used, Strike Up the Band, was about a megalomaniacal businessman who starts a war with a foreign country so he can brand it with his name and bilk profits from the resulting chaos; the other, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, a sequel to Of Thee I Sing, is about a fascist dictator taking over the White House by making empty promises to the proletariat.  Until last week, I used to think these two shows were pure fantasy.

1600_pennsylvania_avenue“Take Care of This House” is a sober rebuke to such frivolity.  It emerges from the wreckage of one of Broadway’s most curious disasters, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a musical celebration of the Bicentennial, written by two of the best writers to ever stride along the canyons of the Theater District, Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner.  Bernstein and Lerner had known each such since their Harvard days and, with their respective track records of breaking down boundaries and seriousness of purpose, they appeared to be an excellent match.  The vehicle for their collaborative debut was equally ambitious:  a retrospective of a dozen presidential administrations in the early decades of this country’s history, using the White House itself—and its African-American domestic staff—as a tension-laden metaphor for, among other things, America’s complex contradictions about race and equality.

Perhaps if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had been directed by Jerome Robbins and produced by a diplomatic tag-team of Benjamin Franklin and George C. Marshall, it might have survived the internecine warfare, bruised egos, and textual depredations that the show endured out of town; it limped into New York in early May of 1976 and expired within a week.  Some of the score’s most compelling remnants have been glued and stapled together subsequently into various cantatas and concert pieces, but the musical’s conceptual ambitions for the stage vanished forty years ago.

I’m of the opinion that a failure created by talented people is never wholly a failure.  “Take Care of This House” is occasionally performed to this day as a recital piece, but its original context showcases the breadth and depth of Bernstein and Lerner’s preoccupations. It is sung by Abigail Adams (not her first appearance on the Broadway stage, as fans of 1776 know full well, but it is her debut as a First Lady) to a young black slave, named Lud, who will eventually grow old in service of the presidential residence, and live through the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lerner, who could be as self-consciously clever in his lyrics as Cole Porter or Noel Coward, hews to a very simple message—everyone owns a part of the American Dream—and the words are easily and accessibly imparted to a young boy by an experienced woman; you’ve got to be carefully taught, indeed.

Bernstein felt that his score had been traduced in its Broadway incarnation and forbade a cast recording.  The redoubtable Patricia Routledge, who originated the demanding role of First Lady, can be heard singing “Take Care of This House” in a concert or two, years after the Broadway production.  I have chosen Marin Mazzie’s version because I think she represents the indomitability and purity of the best American values; she’d also be swell as the First Lady, if someone is clever enough to put the pieces of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue back together someday.

Of course, the pieces of the real 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may well have to be put back together someday; thank goodness for the power of American song to open our hearts and minds so that we may be touched by the better angels of our nature, as a famous inhabitant of That House once said.  It’s the hope of us all.

[There is an entire episode of my radio program, Broadway to Main Street devoted to patriotic values in the American musical, “Worth Fighting For.” Here’s the link on iTunes]

Take Care of This House (1976)
Leonard Bernstein, music
Alan Jay Lerner, words

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHIvF4fbsU4

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