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.
“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
My “Song of the Day” blog began this week with an enchanted train; in actuality, a wheezy rickety commuter train on the Long Island Rail Road. Today, I’ll turn to the “prince of wheels—the luxury liner of locomotive trains”: the Twentieth Century, Ltd., which zoomed like a comet through the Broadway firmament of my halcyon days.
On the Twentieth Century was hardly the first Broadway musical I had ever seen, but it was the first Boston tryout I ever attended. A musical in its Boston tryout could be the stuff of legend and, as a college freshman in Providence, I was damned if I was going to miss this one. The show was based on a movie I loved, Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; even better, the show was directed by Hal Prince, an idol of my youth, who had rocked my adolescent world with his revival of Candide. Even better than better, the musical starred Madeline Kahn, who was the glamorous reigning queen of movie comedy in the mid-1970s; her glorious set of pipes was the icing on the cake. I was so excited, I hardly noticed the snow beginning to fall as I stepped off the Greyhound bus and made my way to the Colonial Theatre for the matinee.
The next three hours were among the happiest I have spent in the theater (yes, three hours—every Boston tryout ran long). It was a giddy, elegant, hilarious, lunatic, bombastic, melodic afternoon in the theater. At intermission, the couple sitting in front of me turned around and said, “Would you mind not enjoying it so much, please? You’re ruining it for the rest of us.” I couldn’t have cared less; I walked on a cloud back to the bus, back to Providence. Of course, I may have been walking back on a snowdrift, too: this was the beginning of a massive blizzard in February of 1978 that closed Rhode Island down for four days and paralyzed Boston. Years later, Kevin Kline, who got his first big break in that production, told me the weather grew so dire that, for a few days after I saw the show, the show’s producers were pressed into service as the backstage crew.
Nearly all of the action in On the Twentieth Century takes place on the streamlined Art Deco marvel of motion as it hurtles from Chicago to New York in sixteen hours. A frayed but megalomaniacal theater producer named Oscar Jaffe uses that precious time to inveigle his former protégée and ex-lover, movie queen Lily Garland, into signing a Broadway contract that will lift him out of dereliction and restore both of them to the throne of celebrity and stardom. Lily, easily seeing through all of Oscar’s manipulative stratagems, will have none of it. In the eye of this screwball hurricane comes the show’s one quiet and affecting moment, when Oscar and Lily affirm their unique, starry, romantic devotion to each other.
When I saw it in Boston, “Our Private World” was performed as a flashback in Oscar’s beautifully appointed apartment, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Eventually, Prince cut the whole scene and staged it in the present, as Oscar and Lily, in separate train compartments, recall what they once meant to each other. Cy Coleman made the brilliant decision to use the couple’s outsize egos as a springboard for a score approaching the breadth and ambition of operetta, full-blown with brio and daring. Luckily, he was blessed not only with the transcendent Madeline Kahn, but also with the robust singing voice of John Cullum. Together, they make this duet as touching as “You Are Love” from Show Boat and as nostalgic as “Wunderbar” from Kiss Me, Kate. But the counterpoint that Coleman weaves between Lily and Oscar transforms into a web that hints at strangulation; pay attention to Comden and Green’s sly lyrics, which suggest that the exalted isolation of Lily and Oscar’s love affair will ultimately lead to suffocation and dissolution: two large personalities crowded into one tight spotlight.
The show itself was not for all markets. Although it won several major Tony Awards—including Best Score and Best Actor in a musical for Cullum—On the Twentieth Century never really caught on with the larger public. Kahn left the run early, which didn’t help, but I got to see her twice–once in Boston and once in New York—and she was hilarious and luminous. To like the show, you had to be a sophisticated theatergoer; to love the show, you had to be infatuated with the 1930s, screwball comedy, Art Deco design, overblown theatrical personalities, comic operetta, Madeline Kahn and you had to adore one of the most rhapsodic—and underappreciated—duets in the history of the musical theater. But, then, I’ve always enjoyed this show too much.
[I devoted an entire episode of my radio program, Broadway to Main Street to the divine Madeline Kahn—it was one of our most popular podcasts ever. You can listen on iTunes by clicking here.]
Our Private World (1978)
Cy Coleman, music
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, words
Given that, this week, I’m writing about songs for NYFOS, I’d be remiss if I didn’t select at least one song in a foreign language.
As a show tune fan, I would have had a few options to choose from—“Dites-Moi” from South Pacific, say, or “Abbondanza” from The Most Happy Fella—but why be doctrinaire? Besides, one of my all-time favorite songs of any provenance came to me via an EMI collection of French popular chansons, Paris by Night, one of those many evocative international anthologies that were released in the first decade of the compact disc.
“J’Attendrai” was first recorded in French by a chanteuse named Rina Ketty in 1938 (it had originated as an Italian song a couple of years earlier), but achieved its lasting fame—or at least its lasting impact—as sung by Tino Rossi. Tino (short for “Constantino”) Rossi was a European phenomenon whose charms, alas, never really crossed the Atlantic. He was born in Corsica, which made him rather exotic to French audiences when he caught on in the early 1930s. Rossi was a combination of Desi Arnaz (his “Latin lover” persona); Dean Martin (a kind of louche, but safe, romanticism); and Bing Crosby (capturing the sentimental streak, and Rossi was also a movie star in France). Rossi also had a Crosby-like confluence in that he represented a reliable lodestar during the Second World War and even achieved a Christmas classic—“Petit Papa Noel”, which did for French listeners in the mid-1940s what “White Christmas” did for their stateside counterparts. When Rossi passed away in 1983, the New York Times stated that he had sold 200 million records.
Listening to his beseeching crooning (do the French call it “crounant”?) on “J’Attendrai,” one can easily apprehend Rossi’s immense appeal. “I will wait,” he sings, “Day and night, always, I will wait for you to come back . . . time comes and goes, leaving me nothing but the sound of my beating heart, and still—and so—I will wait.” Needless to say, the song’s popularity—which coincided with the occupation of Paris—had a great deal to do with the separation anxiety, romantic and existential, of the Second World War.
The song itself never really enjoyed one of those cognate adaptations of other French ballads on the American pop charts, such as “La mer/Beyond the Sea” or “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”/”I Wish You Love.” There was one version, called “I’ll Be Yours” recorded by Hildegarde during the war, but although the lyrics scan, they never capture the tenacious devotion of the French version, or, indeed, of Rossi’s rendition.
“J’Attendrai” is, to me, a kind of musical widow’s walk: it extols the virtues of resolute commitment, even as it wraps itself in a shawl of nearly anxious melancholy. It doesn’t matter what the singer is actually waiting for—the return of a lover, or a husband, or a sane and compassionate presidential administration—what matters is that we know the singer’s faith in that inevitable return is unshakable, even through the worst of tempests, “like patience on a monument,” as Shakespeare wrote, “smiling at grief.”
[I did, in fact, devote an entire episode of my radio program, Broadway to Main Street to show tunes in French: “French Accent”. You can listen on iTunes by clicking here]
Dino Oliveri, music
Louis Poterat, words (French version)
Many great songs are American standards; some fly under the radar of popular culture. And then there are a few great songs that haven’t even been properly introduced to the radar.
In 1965, you would be hard-pressed to find two songwriters who better represented the relay race of Broadway show tunes than Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. Rodgers had been active as a composer for almost half-a-century; he had achieved unprecedented success with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II respectively. Rodgers had tried his hand at lyric writing himself in the wake of Hammerstein’s passing; among his efforts at both was “Something Good” for the film of The Sound of Music—not bad at all. Sondheim was Hammerstein’s protégé, and by 1965 had already made a significant mark on Broadway with two hits as a lyricist, plus one hit and one miss as a composer/lyricist. His career would extend more than a half-a-century forward and, thankfully, he’s still working.
Before Rodgers would pass the baton on to Sondheim, they were briefly teammates on the same project: the musicalization of Arthur Laurents’s 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo, which became Do I Hear a Waltz?, which ran 220 performances during the 1964-65 season on Broadway. In the five decades since its appearance, show tune fans (including Sondheim himself) have tended to ac-cent-u-ate the negative about this musical, but I can’t join their camp. However dreadful the actual experience of creating Do I Hear a Waltz? may have been (and I gather it was pretty dreadful), the final product has much to commend it—at least purely as songwriting—and, occasionally, provides moments of transcendent passion and joy.
“Take the Moment” shows up as the Act One closer—always a good time to sing the best song in the score. The show takes place in contemporary Venice, where a slightly embittered, slightly frosty, unmarried American secretary named Leona Samish comes to find distraction, adventure, and maybe—maybe—romance. Her tentative steps in that direction find her on the doorstep of a middle-aged shopkeeper named Renato di Rossi. He has his own baggage, but being an Italian tenor in a musical, he also has a knack for the romantic; he advises Leona to ignore the “static” of her bourgeois American bandwidth and leap into the unknown.
The song was originally performed by Sergio Franchi, an Italian tenor, who made his American debut in 1962, and was a favorite guest of Ed Sullivan’s, where audiences ate him up like tiramisu. (He would wind up appearing on the Sullivan show 24 times and once sang “If I Were a Rich Man” in Italian.) Franchi may have been too dashing and too sleek to play a wearied antiques dealer with several children and (spoiler alert!) a wife, but in the recording studio (and in the few clips I’ve seen of him performing in this show) he was a dreamboat come true. Thrill to his robust, masculine, plaintive voice, especially in the last few bars: wouldn’t you take the plunge?
The song itself never got the airplay or critical acceptance it deserved. It was covered—at all the wrong tempos—by Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lena Horne, but never made the transition into a pop classic. I was lucky enough to stage a NYFOS concert some years with Steven Blier, who artfully and cleverly assembled a program that alternated between Rodgers and Vernon Duke. The estimable Joseph Kaiser knocked “Take the Moment” out of the ballpark, but you might strain a metaphor to say that the song would have imbued any baseball with jet propellant.
With Hammerstein, Rodgers created one of the great romantic ballads of the twentieth century, “Some Enchanted Evening.” For my money, he created one nearly as good—maybe even better—with Sondheim. Am I hyperbolic in my enthusiasm? Perhaps. But take the moment and listen—I can’t really explain it: wise men never try.
[I’ve devoted an entire broadcast of my radio show, Broadway to Main Street, to Rodgers’ songs in the last third of his career. You can listen to an iTunes podcast here.]
“Take the Moment” (1965)
Richard Rodgers, music
Stephen Sondheim, words
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.”
“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.]
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