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Jerome Kern: The enchanted train

I grew up on Long Island, forty-five minutes from Broadway (actually forty-nine) and my father commuted to the city and back on the Long Island Rail Road, five days a week, for 38 years.  One night, he trudged wearily through the front door, tossed his briefcase aside, collapsed in a chair and said, “I’ve just added it up:  I’ve spent three-and-a-half years of my life on the Long Island Rail Road.”

e546aa558c10b71cce78de6c6c66f772c6f59f44“The Enchanted Train” offers a far more uplifting portrait of that venerable conveyance, the local commuter train.  This song is particularly dear to me because I hopped aboard its transcendent joys as part of my first journey with the New York Festival of Song.  I had known of Steven Blier since he put together an exceptional concert of Ira Gershwin’s work with various composers for the Ira Gershwin centennial in 1996.  Imagine my great pleasure when he asked me to collaborate with him on staging a concert of P.G. Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist, including songs with music by Jerome Kern from the early part of the 20th Century.  Steve had assembled an impressive quartet of talent—no surprise, there—including the divine Sylvia McNair and the dashing Hal Cazalet, who also provided the initial octane for the concert concept.

We took the train—surprise!—to Washington, DC to perform “P.G.’s Other Profession” at the Library of Congress in 2000; then in several New York venues; and finally jetting to London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall, picking up different performing passengers along the way, including David Costabile, Christianne Tisdale, and Henry Goodman.  Among all the delightful songs in this garland of genteel whimsy, “The Enchanted Train” (originally written for Sitting Pretty in 1924) is the one that—befitting a vehicle in transit—moves me the most.  Listen to the effervescent anticipation that Sylvia and Hal bring to their incipient meeting at the train station after an arduous day’s work—one would think they were Hero and Leander.  (One of my favorite bits of staging was when Hal would gleefully catch Sylvia’s eye—after being seated on two separate stools a concert stage apart—on the penultimate “I’m coming back!,” as if he had just stuck his head out of the train window. ) Enjoy Greg Utzig’s banjo stylings as they stream along the tracks.  And, finally, revel in Steve Blier’s rambling and rumbling piano accompaniment; they capture every wheeze and whistle of the 5:41 local as it makes its eager way through the North Shore of Long Island to Port Washington.

I promise you, after listening to this song, you’ll never ride through Plandome the same way again.

[I’ve devoted an entire broadcast of my radio show, Broadway to Main Street, to “The Song is Kern,” which includes this song and many others by Jerome Kern.  You can download the iTunes podcast here >]

“The Enchanted Train” (1924)
Jerome Kern, music
P.G. Wodehouse, words

[ed. note: If you don’t already have a Spotify account, you may need to create a free one to listen.]

Song of the Day: April 1

‘THE PALACE OF SANS SOUCI’ FROM THE MUSICAL OF THE HAPPY PRINCE WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY HAL CAZALET

As a child I loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales and The Happy Prince became embedded into my psyche. I have been adapting the story for the musical stage, and I hope you don’t think it too self indulgent that as I sign off, I share a song from it here with you. Well, I guess it’s a big part of who I am and what I do.

Here in the story, the Statue of a Prince tells a Swallow (his new friend) of his enchanted childhood in the Palace of Sans Souci, where a lofty wall shielded him from the cares of the outside world. The Prince explains that when he died, his courtiers set him up on a plinth so high that he could see over the wall and witnesses the suffering and poverty of his city.

I beg you to read the fairytale if you haven’t read it as you are in for a treat.

Song of the Day: March 31

 

“LOVE ME STILL” SUNG BY BETTYE LAVETTE WITH HERBIE HANCOCK AT CHAKA KHAN TRIBUTE IN 2011 (with original also attached)

Sometimes this life is a bitter pill…I love you now, do you love me still?”

As I was passing London’s legendary Jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s the other night, I asked a man who was playing that night and he replied Chaka Khan. Having possibly noticed my far away look ‘of good times once had on the dance floor’ and feeling he was talking to a Chaka admirer, he tested me saying, ‘if you can name me two of her songs, I’ll put you on her guest list’. It just so happened I was talking to her manager. My favourite dance song: Ain’t Nobody was easy, but I think it was the mention of Love me Still that got me on the guest list to see the Queen of R&B.

Brought up into the ‘middle of madness’ of Chicago’s rough South Side housing projects and subjected to the struggles of alcohol and drugs, Yvette Marie Stephens (as she was christened) literally had to sing her way out of poverty. With a career spanning 4 decades with 10 Grammy’s, (22 nominations), 77 million records sold and twice inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame, she must be one of R&B’s most incredible success stories.

I hope this song touches you as it did me when I heard her sing it that night. Bettye Lavette sings it here in tribute & I wanted to share it with you as she’s so damn good!

Song of the Day: March 30

DUDLEY MOORE PERFORMS BRITTEN’S ‘LITTLE MISS MUFFET’ & ‘THE BALLAD OF GANGSTER JO’ BY WEILL/BRECHT INTRODUCED BY DR JONATHAN MILLER

‘Witty, genius, obscene, maverick, cuddly, unique’ are just some of words that are often used to describe my musical hero Dudley Moore. His career was tragically cut short by a long and brave struggle with the brain degenerative illness PSP. The stage director, Jonathan Miller, insists that despite all Dudley’s success in show business, he was first and foremost a musician. Having won an organ scholarship to Magdalen college, Oxford, Dudley Moore soon became a leading light alongside Peter Cook in the satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe. He also performed an extraordinary range of music as both a composer and pianist, working on TV documentaries with conductors Sir George Solti on Overture and Michael Tilson Thomas on Concerto. He played piano in a jazz trio with Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. A shameless philanderer, more funny, more talented and a little less sober than most, Dudley Moore for me encapsulated everything that an entertainer should be. My regret was never meeting him as he has been such a great source of inspiration to me.

I hope you enjoy this clip of Dudley at his most brilliant. After this ‘Beyond the Fringe‘ performance it was said that his impression ‘sounded more convincing than Peter Pears’s himself’ and apparently Benjamin Britten was so offended by the impression, he never spoke to Dudley again!

Song of the Day: March 29

‘DAYBREAK’ FROM THE MUSICAL FLOYD COLLINS BY ADAM GUETTEL

I was at the first performance of the musical Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons, New York in 1996 and its haunting beauty has remained with me ever since. It was baffling to me how a man down a mine shaft with a leg trapped under a rock could make engaging subject matter for a show, but I left the performance profoundly moved and knew I had witnessed the future of the American Musical. In this stunning duet, Floyd’s younger brother stays the night with Floyd to comfort him.

Song of the Day: March 28

DAVID BOWIE SINGS ‘CHANGES’

I am so grateful to be sharing these songs with you this week. It’s an eclectic mix as my tastes have never been particularly grounded in one musical style.

I grew up with Bowie’s music and loved it. It is extraordinary to think that throughout his career & even up to his recent death he went through so many re inventions and transformations. His songs provoke us to examine who we are, what we stand for and to question the very meaning of our existence. I am sure they will continue to do so for generations to come. This well known song from the 1971 Hunky Dory album is quintessentially Bowie – a kind of manifesto for ‘change’. A real gem.

Song of the Day: November 25

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)NYFOS is celebrating our co-founder Steven Blier this week! In honor of his birthday on November 25, each Song of the Day post this week will be a tribute to him.  Happy Birthday, Steve!  We hope you enjoy these and have a wonderful week!

Today’s post comes from Steve’s former student and NYFOS artist Hal Cazalet:

My song of the week for Steve is “Till The Clouds Roll By”, music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by P G Wodehouse from the 1917 Broadway musical Oh Boy!

“The Schubert of the American Song” – Steve Blier describing Jerome Kern.

Happy birthday to you, my dear Mr Blier. I wanted to send you a birthday tune I know is close to both of us and that I hope makes your day even more beautiful.

There is something quite wonderful about the impression this music has on our sophisticated ears nearly 100 years on. There seems a bygone innocence in the style and manner, a simple truth in the melody, naivety in the lyric, yet for all its lighthearted charm and fun, there seems something inexplicably moving in its effect. Music that goes to the heart is rather rare in stage musicals today, but it seems the great inaugurators of the American musical, Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse, had the ability to connect with the emotions of their audience without ever seeming to make an effort.

Oh Boy! was one of the Princess Musicals and notably, made a name of Beatrice Lillie who took the roll of Jackie in London production in 1919 following the Broadway transfer. The plot is full of the usual Wodehouse/Bolton antics – Polo Players, a character described as ‘a Dandy’, a befuddled leading man trying to elope with the girl while avoiding her Quaker aunt. All wonderful stuff that is a perfect tonic in the uncertain world we live in today. Strange, and yet heartening to think that when America joined WW1 in April 1917, Oh Boy! was on Broadway and would continue its run for most of that year – just think of the comfort it must have given to the New York spirit back then. George Orwell described the fanciful world of the Princess Musicals as ‘The Garden of Eden’, a haven of escape, delight and joy. I hope, SB, that your day is jam packed with all three. I suppose all honest music moves us because it needs no where to hide.

Happy birthday old horse,
Hal x

I am sending 2 versions. The first is the John McGlinn recording and the second is the original which is so wonderfully audacious!

http://secondhandsongs.com/work/133854/all

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Juilliard / “The Land Where the Good Songs Go”

January 9, 2014

There was a blessed event today. No, no one had a baby. But at around 4 PM I heard a voice in my ear murmuring “Hey, Stevie!” in an insinuating way, and I turned around to see that Hal Cazalet had slipped into the chair behind me. I knew he was due in from London—ETA 2:30 PM at Newark—but I never thought he’d saunter in so early or so casually. In fact I really didn’t imagine we’d even lay eyes on him till tomorrow. I have rarely been so happy to see a human being as I was to welcome Hal this afternoon.

A little background. Hal was my student at Juilliard in the mid-90s, and we went on to do several notable NYFOS projects together after he left school. He is a brilliant singer and actor, as well as a wonderful composer; I’ve programmed a few of his pieces over the years. Hal is also the great-grandson of P. G. Wodehouse, and it was because of him that NYFOS first did a Wodehouse/Kern recital, then entitled P. G.’s Other Profession. Hal and I took that program to Washington D.C., London, and New York, in tandem with Sylvia McNair; the three of us also made a Wodehouse/Kern CD in 2000.

I met Hal when he was the age of my cast. Today I found it heartwarming and sobering, in equal measure, to collaborate with this handsome, settled man, the father of three. Hal has mellowed, but he has lost none of the springy, apple-cheeked vigor I remember from his youth. He bonded instantly with Mary Birnbaum—they appear to be a co-directing team made in heaven—and he jumped into action when the two of us pressed him into service. Jet-lag? Not a sign of it. He was always a clever, adept performer—the funniest Nanki-Poo I ever saw, a deliciously slimy Don Basilio in Figaro, and a class-A recitalist in Schubert, Fauré, and Britten. But by now he’s become a true master of the stage, and he electrified the room with his charm and his stage smarts. After he showed Ben and Alex the choreo for “We’re Crooks” I finally said, “Hal. Please. Would you…just sing it for us?” There followed three minutes of pure magic—he instantly morphed into a pugnacious music-hall thug imbued with a goofy, light-footed grace. None of us could take our eyes off him.

–Steven Blier

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