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Duke Ellington/Marshall Barer: C’est Comme Ça

Most of you have certainly heard of Duke Ellington, but how many of you are familiar with the work of the lyricist Marshall Barer (1923-1998)? He had his greatest Broadway success as the lyricist for the musical Once Upon a Mattress, written with composer Mary Rodgers, whose songs are part of this week’s NYFOS “Rodgers, Rodgers, & Guettel” concerts. Barer is often referred to as the greatest lyricist you have never heard of.

I had the pleasure of meeting Marshall at a party in Los Angeles in 1989. I was just getting my bearings, adjusting to life back in the U.S. after working in Europe for five years, and in walks the strangest thing on two feet that I had ever encountered. It soon became apparent that he was also one of the most brilliant and clever people one could hope to meet. As I had no car at the time (NOT recommended when you’re living in Los Angeles), he offered to pick me up and drive me to his place in Venice Beach so he could hear my music. Up pulled his car: a Mercedes-Benz covered entirely in denim. Yes, denim. And it had a zipper up the front of the hood. During the entire drive to his place, he never once fully came to a stop—honestly, not once—and seemed to pay scant attention to what other cars on the road were doing or if a traffic light had changed color. We ended up writing several songs together, and I’ll always cherish the memory of working with such a consummate artist and a truly unique human being.

Marshall wrote with many different composers over the years, and often spoke to me about how much he loved working with Duke Ellington on the score of the ill-fated 1966 musical Pousse-Café, which flopped on Broadway after only 3 performances. It was a heart-breaking experience for Marshall, but what remains are some wonderful songs. One of my favorites is “C’est Comme Ça,” sung here in a beautiful live performance by B.J. Ward, from her wonderful CD devoted entirely to Marshall’s songs. It’s a great example of economy in songwriting. Notice how the melodic shape of the first phrase of the song gets repeated several times, climbing higher and more passionate with its reiterations, and taking us through some delicious Ellington harmonies—yet never straying too far off course that we can’t appreciate the exquisite simplicity of the lyric.

In a funny way, Marshall Barer is my own personal conduit to the composers NYFOS is honoring this week. He knew Richard Rodgers, wrote extensively with Mary Rodgers, and even wrote with Adam Guettel. I’m very grateful that the brakes on his old Mercedes-Benz didn’t fail completely, and that I’m still here to talk about him.

C’est Comme Ça
Music by Duke Ellington
Lyrics by Marshall Barer

Rob Mathes: The Rose, The Lily, The Sun, The Dove

A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me an album entitled Rob Mathes: Orchestral Songs. Those familiar with this CD will no doubt nod in agreement when I tell you that it is not the music to put on when you are multi-tasking—this music compels you to stop. And really listen.

Besides being knocked out by the fact that Mathes composed, sang, arranged and conducted every note on that album, I was also struck by the way some of the songs reminded me of the work of Adam Guettel, the third of the three composers being honored by NYFOS in their “Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel” concerts this week. Guettel and Mathes seem to share a musical freshness, and I found myself tallying up the similarities—they both display marvelous rhythmic diversity, a rich and satisfying quicksilver sense of harmony, and a classy pop sensibility that manages to be complex and yet romantic at the same time.

Mathes’ “The Rose, the Lily, the Sun, the Dove” is a translation of a Heinrich Heine poem that Schumann fans will recognize as the text for the third song in his Dichterliebe song cycle. Like so many Guettel songs, this Mathes piece displays his ability to write a compelling romantic melody that soothes one minute, drives forward the next, and is as stimulating to the ear as it is…well, just plain fun. And all fused with his plaintive pop voice and those superb orchestrations.

A monster musician, Mathes has worked with many of the biggest names in the music business, from Luciano Pavarotti and Renée Fleming to Elton John and Sting. And, not surprisingly, he is a fan of Guettel’s work. In a blogpost from 2010, when Mathes was producing a record for The Light in the Piazza star (and Glee guy) Matthew Morrison, Mathes couldn’t help but gush, “That score is just beyond belief,” he wrote of Piazza. “The moment at the end, where the reprise of the arching ‘Light in the Piazza’ melody comes back, is to me one of the great moments in theatre since Sweeney Todd.”

The Rose, The Lily, The Sun, The Dove
Music by Rob Mathes
Poem by Heinrich Heine (trans. unknown)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross: Hey There

By the 1950s, the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein was enormous, and many younger theatre songwriters—peers of Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary—aspired to the success of R&H, and shared some of their aesthetic principles. As we look at songs written by contemporaries of this week’s NYFOS composers “Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel,” one can’t ignore the contributions of Richard Adler (1921–2012) and Jerry Ross (1926–1955).

Adler and Ross had two hit Broadway shows in the mid 1950s with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. In the song “Hey There” (from Pajama Game), you can hear how the melodic smoothness, sincere lyrics and satisfying chord progressions of some of the best Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads permeate this song, without ever feeling like it is an imitation. It doesn’t hurt to have John Raitt singing it so gloriously either.

I find it fascinating, from a vocal point of view, that this mid-century period of Broadway musicals produced so many wonderful male singers. In addition to Raitt, you had Alfred Drake, Gordon MacRae and Richard Kiley, to name just a few. Each of them possessed a beautiful, resonant voice that managed to find the balance between good diction and excellent vocal production—and in an age that wasn’t yet reliant on microphones on the Broadway stage.

“Hey There”
Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross

Harold Arlen: Shake It Off With Rhythm

Ah, the pleasures that come from a well-sung note held for a long, looooong time. Rodgers and Hart had a lot of fun with that idea in their song “Johnny One Note,” from their 1937 musical, Babes In Arms. Of course, that wasn’t the first time a composer used that clever device. In continuing to look at songs written by contemporaries of this week’s NYFOS composers “Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel,” I’ve been thinking of other notable long-noter composers. Like George and Ira Gershwin, whose “I Got Rhythm” was introduced by a very young Ethel Merman in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy. Her high note, held for several bars in the second chorus of the song, became a sensation, and this device was imitated by others, including Rodgers.

A more obscure example (and a personal favorite) is “Shake It Off With Rhythm,” with music by Harold Arlen (1905–1986), a giant in the pantheon of great American songwriters, and lyricist Lew Brown (1893–1958). It comes from the relatively unknown 1936 movie musical Strike Me Pink, which featured—you guessed it—Ethel Merman. You almost get the feeling that the film’s producer, Samuel Goldwyn, said to the songwriters, “Boys, we need a song for Merman about rhythm, and be sure to give her a long high note at the end!”

When I was a kid in Southern California, I chanced upon this movie on daytime television and was completely fascinated by it. I knew nothing of Merman, New York or musicals, and had never heard orchestrations like this. I still remember the moment those two pianos started playing (you’ll catch it at 2:50)—I instantly fell in love with that sound. How lucky was I, many years later, to be able to play several two-piano concerts of Gershwin music, on different occasions, with Steven Blier and John Musto.

You can skip to 0:23 in the YouTube clip, below, which is where the song begins and Merman enters for the first time. There’s a tap dance feature at 2:43 (with a clever trick photography bit) and then, at 2:50, the wonderfully elegant two pianos enter (by the way, Babes In Arms also featured two-pianos in the pit). For a split-second, you can catch the hilarious face of a disgruntled dancer at 4:58 after she has been caught in a rather compromising position. Then, FINALLY, Merman reenters and delivers the goods—and the high notes.

As much as people like to poke fun of Merman’s voice, in the 1930s she was not yet fully “belting” her high notes but, rather, “mixing” them in a sort of clarion head-voice. It was a sound that, even then, got her attention—and apparently prompted Toscanini, when he first heard her voice at the time, to cry: “Castrato!”

“Shake it Off With Rhythm”
Music by Harold Arlen
Lyrics by Lew Brown

Jerome Kern: Till the Clouds Roll By

There’s no way you could grow up in a Rodgers household without hearing the family music—great songs created by a certain father, daughter and grandson. But in anticipation of this week’s NYFOS “Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel” concerts, I got to wondering: What other music were they all listening to, and what other songwriters may have had an influence on their work?

Jerome Kern (1885–1945) had a long career as one of the most prominent and important American theatre composers of the early 20th century. “Till the Clouds Roll By” comes from a 1917 show—Oh, Boy!—that Richard Rodgers likely saw as a teenager. (He was a big theatre lover and a Kern fan by this point.) Kern wrote a series of small, intimate musicals during the World War I era, in a musical style that was both straightforward and catchy, yet retained a certain elegance. Richard Rodgers listened…and learned.

To today’s ears, the song—and this original performance—may sound exceedingly quaint and old-fashioned, but just listen to how Kern builds the melody of the chorus (starting at 0:43—skip the verse if you’re pressed for time) from the lowest note of the melody to the highest note within three phrases of music, and then gently brings us back down to the middle, all with a sense of musical inevitability and a satisfying underpinning of harmony. Then he repeats the same course for the second half of the refrain (with a slight variation at the end of it).

The square-ness of the instrumental break at 1:37 always makes me smile—it feels completely devoid of any sass or cynicism that would explode into the popular song culture of the 1920s and beyond, and yet I find the pureness and innocence of this song very charming.

“Till The Clouds Roll By”
Music by Jerome Kern
Lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton

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