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.
“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.
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 Bernstein, was 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.
A very informal performance of “To Make Us Proud” from 1600 by WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon.
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.
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.
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.
June 30 is close enough to July 4 that I’d like to conclude this week with “Ballad for Americans,” a patriotic cantata for soloist, chorus and orchestra. All through my childhood my father played the Paul Robeson recording on Independence Day. Between Robeson’s voice, the casual references to historical figures, the questions and the lists, elementary-school Amy found it absolutely thrilling. As I grew older, it also took on the good feelings that come with a family tradition.
It lands differently on adult ears. [see below for the lyric] For a while I hesitated to share it with the refined NYFOS readership. It is not subtle — not the music or the message. The fit of music to syllables is often awkward. There are many ironies I didn’t understand as a child: that Robeson was representing a nation where African Americans were treated terribly; that immigrants from many countries were being hailed, while U.S. immigration policies severely limited the entry of Jews fleeing Hitler. But it is so well-meaning. I hope you will enjoy it as a 10-minute respite from the lying, greed, hate, and fear that surround us at present.
“Ballad for Americans” (1939)
Music by Earl Robinson; lyric by John Latouche
An early version with two soloists — “Ballade of Uncle Sam” — was the finale of the Broadway revue Sing for Your Supper, which had 60 performances between April and July, 1939. The show was produced by the Federal Theatre Project, and only closed because Congress had abruptly defunded them.
Revised and retitled, and with Paul Robeson as the single soloist, “Ballad” reached a national audience live on the CBS radio network on November 5, 1939 (when radio stations still had their own orchestras!). There was a reprise performance on New Year’s Eve. The work was enormously popular and received numerous performances around the country. Robeson and Bing Crosby each recorded it in the summer of 1940. Remarkably, it was programmed at both the Communist Party’s convention in May 1940 and the Republican convention in June.
For more information about “Ballad For Americans,” I encourage you to listen to this 2015 segment from All Things Considered.
And keep an eye out for Howard Pollack’s new biography of John Latouche, being published in November. He kindly allowed me to read the chapter on “Ballad” last week.
+ + + +
The lyric has had authorized and unauthorized adjustments and updates over the years. The version below mostly matches the video linked to above.
In seventy-six the sky was red
Thunder rumbling overhead
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, old Uncle Sam was born.
S: Ol’ Sam put on a three-cornered hat
And in a Richmond church he sat
And Patrick Henry told him that
While America drew breath
All: It was “Liberty or Death.”
Ens: What kind of hat is a three-cornered hat?
A Woman: Did they all believe in liberty in those days?
Solo: Nobody who was anybody believed it.
Ev’rybody who was anybody they doubted it.
Nobody had faith, nobody.
Nobody but Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin,
Chaim Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette.
A Man: The nobodies ran a tea party at Boston.
A Woman: Betsy Ross organized a sewing circle.
A Man: Paul Revere had a horse race.
Solo: And a little ragged group believed it.
And some gentlemen and ladies believed it.
And some wise men and some fools,
And I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
A Man: No. Who are you, Mister?
A Woman: Yeah, how come all this?
Solo: Well, I’ll tell you. Now let me—
Ens: No, let us tell you.
Then Mister Tom Jefferson, a mighty fine man.
He wrote it down in a mighty fine plan.
And the rest all signed it with a mighty fine han’
As they crossed their “t”s and dotted their “i”s
A bran’ new country did arise.
Solo: And a mighty fine idea.
A Man: Adopted unanimously in Congress July 4, 1776.
Solo: We hold these truths to be self-evident,
That all men are created equal.
All: That they are endowed by their creator
With certain inalienable rights.
Ens: That among these rights are Life!
Solo: Yes sir!
Solo: That’s right!
Ens: And the pursuit of happiness!
A Woman: Is that what they said?
Solo: The very words.
A Woman: That does sound mighty fine.
Ens: Building a nation is awful tough.
The people found the going rough.
And thirteen states weren’t large enough.
So they started to expand —
Into the western lands!
Solo: Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who was anybody they stayed at home.
But Lewis and Clark and the pioneers,
Driven by hunger, haunted by fears,
The Klondike miners and the Forty-Niners,
Some wanted freedom and some wanted riches,
Some liked to loaf while others dug ditches.
Ens: But they believed in it.
Solo: And I believed it too.
And you know who I am.
A Man: No, who are you anyway, Mister?
Solo: Well, I started to tell you
A Woman: Yes, Mister, tell us who you are.
Solo: You see, I represent the whole…
Solo: That’s it!
Ens: Let my people go.
Solo: That’s the idea!
All: Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,
His heart was high and his faith was strong.
But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,
And he went down to his grave to free the slave.
Ens: Man in white skin can never be free
While his black brother is in slavery,
“And we here highly resolve that these dead
Shall not have died in vain.
And government of the people, by the people and for the people
All: Shall not perish from the Earth.”
A Man: Abraham Lincoln said that on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg,
Solo: And he was right. I believe that too.
A Man: Say, we still don’t know who you are, Mister.
Solo: Well, I started to tell you…
Ens: The machine age came with a great big roar,
As America grew in peace and war.
And a million wheels went around and ’round.
The cities reached into the sky
And dug down deep into the ground.
And some got rich and some got poor.
But the people carried through,
So our country grew.
Solo: Still nobody who was anybody believed it.
Everybody who was anybody they doubted it.
And they are doubting still,
And I guess they always will,
But who cares what they say
When I am on my way—
Ens: Say, will you please tell us who you are?
A Man: What’s your name, Buddy?
A Man: Where you goin’?
A Man: Who are you?
Solo: Well, I’m everybody who’s nobody,
I’m the nobody who’s everybody.
A Man: What’s your racket?
What do you do for a living?
Solo: Well, I’m an
Engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher,
A Man: How about a farmer?
A Woman: Office clerk?
Solo: Yes, ma’am.
A Man: Mechanic?
Solo: That’s right.
A Woman: Housewife?
A Man: Factory worker?
Solo: You said it.
A Woman: Stenographer?
Solo: Uh huh.
A Woman: Beauty Specialist?
A Man: Bartender?
A Man: Truck driver?
Ens: Miner, seamstress, ditchdigger,
Solo: All of them.
I am the “etceteras” and the “and so forths” that do the work.
A Man: Now hold on here, what are you trying to give us?
A Woman: Are you an American?
Solo: Am I an American?
I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian,
French and English, Spanish, Russian,
Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian,
Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian,
Greek and Turk and Czech
And double check American.
And that ain’t all.
I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran,
Atheist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian,
Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more.
Ens: You sure are something.
All: Our country’s strong, our country’s young,
And her greatest songs are still unsung.
From her plains and mountains we have sprung
To keep the faith with those who went before.
Ens: We nobodies who are anybody believe it.
We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.
Solo: Out of the cheating, out of the shouting.
Out of the murders and lynching
All: Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting,
Out of uncertainty and doubting,
Out of the carpetbag and the brass spittoon
It will come again.
Our marching song will come again!
Ens: Simple as a hit tune,
Deep as our valleys,
High as our mountains,
Strong as the people who made it.
Solo: For I have always believed it,
And I believe it now.
And you know who I am.
Ens: Who are you?
It was not consciously planned, but the songs I chose to start and end this week are both idealistic. By contrast, today’s pick involves serial murder and cannibalism.
For those who don’t know: Sweeney Todd is a vengeful barber who intends to slit the throat of a powerful judge. Already, Sweeney has killed a rival barber who jeopardized that plan. (There’s much more to it, but this is all you need to understand today’s song.) Nellie Lovett sells meat pies and business is terrible. She has befriended Sweeney and given him a room above her shop. (Again, much more to it, but…)
They need to dispose of the dead man’s body.
In its ghoulish way the song is — if you’ll forgive me — delicious. The driving waltz, the characters’ delight in their scheme, the endlessly inventive lyric, and the listener’s eager anticipation for the next joke give the scene tremendous energy. And I have never thought of shepherd’s pie the same way again.
I’m linking to the original Broadway cast album (Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett; Len Cariou as Sweeney) so you can concentrate on the words.
Sondheim – “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd (1979)
The entire show — with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn — was broadcast on PBS in 1982. The intro to “A Little Priest” starts at 1:12:30.
“April in Paris” was recorded by all the big mid-century pop singers; secondhandsongs.com lists more than 60 versions. But my favorite recording omits the lyric. Here is the Count Basie Orchestra, swinging hard in a 1955 arrangement by Wild Bill Davis.
I don’t remember where or when I first encountered this track, but I think there was some jumping up and down with pleasure. And that is why I offer it here.
If you’re not familiar with this particular arrangement, be sure to listen all the way to the very, very end.
“April in Paris” from Walk a Little Faster (1932)
Lyric: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg; Music: Vernon Duke
Performed by the Count Basie Orchestra, arr: Wild Bill Davis
“April in Paris,” was written in 1932 by Yip Harburg and Vernon Duke for their revue Walk a Little Faster. The show starred comedians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough and Beatrice Lillie. Apparently (I say “apparently” because I got the following details from internet, rather than the library) there was Paris scenery and Harburg and Duke wrote this song during the out-of-town tryout in Boston in order to put the set to good use. It was introduced by Evelyn Hoey in Boston, but she had laryngitis when the Broadway critics came on opening night and the song was not singled out. The show ran for 3.5 months, and later the song took on a life of its own.
This arrangement took on a life of its own too. Jazz and pop music historian Will Friedwald told me that Count Basie played it virtually every night from 1955 to his death in 1984, and the “ghost’ band continues to play it today.
There is really wonderful footage of the band playing “April in Paris,” but it’s a little different than the one I adore. This aired on BBC4 in November 1965.
And here’s yet another performance of “April in Paris” — from the movie Blazing Saddles.
In this April 1926 recording (made in London for English Columbia), George Gershwin plays and Fred Astaire sings and taps. To paraphrase the Passover Haggadah: if George Gershwin plays and Astaire sings and taps, dayenu. It would have been enough. But this recording contains a few bonus delights, as Gershwin interpolates licks from Rhapsody in Blue (written the same year as the song) and the men call out to each other. Pure happiness.
Lady, Be Good! (1924) was the first full score siblings Ira and George Gershwin wrote together and starred siblings Adele and Fred Astaire. Another first: This song was the first in which Fred Astaire danced a solo, rather than performing only as his sister’s dance partner or leading an ensemble. The song title may have been inspired by flamboyant female impersonator Bert Savoy, whose catch phrase, “You don’t know the half of it, dearie” became very popular in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Savoy died in 1923.
I first encountered Candide in a college production that my high school’s Thespian Club attended. It was exciting and irreverent and the “Make Our Garden Grow” finale had me walking on air. I talked about the show so much that my mom bought me the double LP (1974 version with the red cover), which I played over and over in my bedroom. Thanks, Mom!
In the context of the story, any utopia is suspect, and the verdant domestic future Candide imagines in the finale is no exception. As soon as the company has sung it into being, the bubble is burst. “Ah me, the pox.”
But when the song is unlinked from the story, the audience is allowed to indulge in its lovely sincerity. As Jamie Bernstein has written, “the soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself.” I especially love the moment when the orchestra drops out and everyone sings acapella.
I’ve chosen the performance from the PBS Broadcast of “Bernstein at 70,” a birthday concert at Tanglewood on August 25, 1988. Seiji Ozawa leads Jerry Hadley and Dawn Upshaw. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing who is in the supporting ensemble in front of the orchestra.
“Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide (1956)
Lyric: Richard Wilbur
Music: Leonard Bernstein
If you’re grasping at names, here is the cast list from the BSO’s online archive. Is that Jamie and her siblings at the far left at 3:25?
The New York Times’ report on the event is here.
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org