The 1927 musical Strike Up the Band was a flop, but it contained some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best songs. One of the lesser-known ones was “Homeward Bound”, sung by soldier boys at the end of a fictitious war in a satirical story. I am inordinately fond of it. As my last song this week, it strikes me as expressive of the joyful relief some will feel when released from the captivity caused by current travel restrictions. Stuck thousands of miles from home, they long for this moment. Here’s John Musto and me.
Once again the golden sun is shining
On the lonesome soldier boy;
And the heavy heart that knows but pining
Beats again a song of joy.
Soon we’ll be in our native land once more —
There to greet all the loved ones we adore.
On the way!
Home to stay!
What a thrill!
Jack and Jill
Will soon be deep in clover
Trouble’s over for me!
Me oh my!
Misery, say goodbye!
Can’t go wrong—
Won’t be long, boys,
You’re lucky when you’re homeward bound!
No sooner has the hurly-burly of the New York season ended than the summer season creeps up from behind, screaming for attention. I just ran a musical marathon that ended with four huge projects in the space of five weeks (in three cities). But pretty soon I’ll be off to Wolf Trap to do something Kim Witman titled Four of a Kind. Why? Well, it has songs from four countries, sung by four singers, and accompanied by four hands. Mine, and those of Joseph Li. I met Joseph last summer and quickly realized I was in the presence of musical royalty. I found that his heart was as warm as his music, and following a strong instinct I decided that we should work on a program together. I knew his playing only from a few YouTube clips, but I had a hunch that amounted to a certainty.
Joe and I just spent some time together in New York working out our duets (played from scores) and our two-piano song accompaniments (improvised, usually with nothing more explicit than “You play high in this one, and I’ll stay low”). Joe is a superb partner, able to hear the onset of a ritardando in the space of two notes, or a change of timbre and articulation the moment it happens. I’ve played with some great pianists: John Musto, Michael Barrett, Chris Reynolds, and now Joseph Li have all made me feel like Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire. But wait, not backwards and in heels. No, it’s more like being a pair of Nicholas Brothers:
One of the songs we’re doing at Wolf Trap is Gershwin’s “Hi-ho.” George and Ira wrote it for the movie “Shall We Dance,” and it finds the brothers at the top of their game. Musically complex (an early listener called it “practically a piano sonata”) and lyrically adroit, “Hi-ho” is a true Gershwin masterpiece. But it was simply too long to be included in the movie. It would have needed an expensive, elaborate set, and Hollywood was not seduced by its sheer musical brilliance. Tony Bennett recorded it as a sexy soft-shoe, but William Sharp and I exploited its careening energy when we made our Gershwin CD in 1990. I love Tony B., but I think our “Hi-ho” flies higher. And when Joe and I played it last weekend, my piano started to give off smoke. Watch out, world.
As I deal with the current dystopia I encounter every morning on NPR, I keep thinking about the song “Slap That Bass” by the Gershwin brothers. “Dictators would be better off if they zoom-zoomed now and then,” they write. I couldn’t agree more. “Zoom zoom, zoom zoom, the world is in a mess”—but for a few minutes George and Ira make the world safe again. After all, I need to think straight if I am going to help put things right.
I offer it in three formats:
FRED ASTAIRE, with the original dance break from “Shall We Dance”
ELLA FITZGERALD from her Gershwin Songbook, buttery and smooth, if a bit bland
And a special treat: Susan Stroman’s staging in Crazy for You, taken from the São Paulo production and sung, of course, in Portuguese. American swing-time meets Brazilian pelvises. Just watched it twice…
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