Last year I saw a ‘new’ musical theatre piece that was a collaboration between lyricist Vid Guerrerio and the greatest musical theatre composer of them all…Mozart. The piece was called Figaro (90210), and it brilliantly updated the opera to present-day L.A. Susanna is an illegal immigrant who has been working in a sweatshop, and is now a maid working for ‘Paul Conti’, a shady businessman who has promised to sponsor her for a green card in return for services rendered. First performed in L.A. before the presidential primaries a couple of years ago, it was/is of our moment and of all time (since it is Mozart!).
The lyrics are clever, meaningful and recreate the connivings and longings of the da Ponte libretto in colloquial 2015 English and Spanish. Particularly moving was a refitting of Cherubino’s “Voi Che Sapete”, sung by ‘B-Man’, an aspiring rapper who is encouraged to rewrite his love song in a spirit of honesty and open-heartedness. I wept. I first saw this during the primary season last year, and then once again recently in the age of Trump. On second viewing I cried through half of the piece; partly because there are so many emotional moments in the Mozart opera, but mostly because it felt like the writer gave me a journey back through time: I felt the sense of immediacy and danger that audiences must have felt in the 1790’s, the depiction of a world where everyone feels threatened, and where order, loyalty, respect, humanity, fidelity are tenuous values.
Guerrerio made what at first seemed an unforgivable choice: he removed the emotional high point of the Mozart/ da Ponte, Susanna’s “Deh Vieni” in Act Four (a declaration of longing that she makes when she knows that Figaro is secretly listening). When the curtain call came I felt bereft that this production had eliminated it…but then a final coda came, with Susanna (played by Samarie Alicea), the Mexican immigrant, singing that aria directly to the audience with these words:
My friends let’s all join hands we’re in this together
Whether we like it or not, the only choice we’ve got
Is try to ‘turn back time’ to some simpler fiction
Or embrace life’s complexity and contradiction.
It’s messy and so very stressful, yes it’s very stressful and scary too
True, but messy humanity? That’s nothing new.
Tough times may test us
But they also can bring out the best us
God has blessed us
Not with the answers, no, answers always get it wrong
We’re blessed with questions and song.
Answers divide us, we’re meant to search and seek and strive
And sing…together…as long as we’re alive
This is my final selection, with it’s simple but far-reaching message…It applies to all facets of life, and to the challenges that each era and each generation faces. It also expresses why I and myriad others are so grateful for our NYFOS journeys. We have been brought together by artists who have enlightened and moved us; like Astaire, faced the music and danced with us; like Mary Cleere Haran, mused on this funny world; have given us love songs and lullabies; made us feel more sure of ourselves through the gifts of their artistry, and blessed us with questions and song.
Instead of going to my senior prom, I took my high school girlfriend by train from New Rochelle, only ‘forty-five minutes from Broadway’ to dinner at Sardi’s and for a performance of A Little Night Music. (I ‘came out’ within two years, it took Gail a little longer). A year later, I saw the first incarnation of Side by Side by Sondheim in London; by then I was a confirmed Sondheimite.
That show in 1976, pre-Internet, pre-You Tube, introduced me to several really obscure (at the time) Sondheim songs, ‘I Never Do Anything Twice’, ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot’ and ‘The Boy From.’ Its rousing ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ led me to the score of the show Anyone Can Whistle, with it’s strange extended musical numbers and its thrilling Act Two duet ‘With So Little To Be Sure Of’.
Soon after joining the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus in 1984, I was invited to do a song for a small chamber concert, and I performed this with a handsome baritone named Jon. I had never sung a romantic duet with a man before. You can imagine the surge I experienced singing the last section, “It was marvelous to know you, and it’s never really through…”
It was 1985, and Jon, the picture of physical, vocal, and spiritual health died within the year, as did about a quarter of the rest of the men I sang with at that time. So this lyric has a particular poignance…‘Crazy business this, this life we live in/ Can’t complain about the time we’re given/ With so little to be sure of in this world we had a moment’… Sondheim used to be criticized for being a chilly writer; I’m hoping that judgment has long since vanished. If nothing else, this song gives the lie to that.
(It is occurring to me that all of the songs this week have had a wistful cast to them. I can’t blame the AIDS crisis or the Trump presidency …I have had a propensity for melancholy since early childhood. The first song I remember my mother singing to me was “Hi Lili Hi Lo” with her altered lyric: ‘a song of love is a sad song, Hi Lee Lee Hi Lee Lee Hi Lo’)
And speaking of early childhood, I do want to assure you that I also have a great deal of joy in my life, singing daily to babies, infants, toddlers and their caregivers. However, I decided that “Trot Old Joe” and “Splishing and Splashing” were not appropriate choices for a NYFOS Song of the Day. For joy and lullabies, you are welcome to bring your two year old to my Music Together classes in Brooklyn Heights!
(There is a clip of Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster singing the duet from the Encores version of Anyone Can Whistle. It begins muted, but the sound quality gets better and the chemistry is there, as it is on the original cast album with Harry Guardino and Lee Remick).
‘As you are dreaming time flies’. One moment you are a kid watching Rosemary Clooney on a black and white TV singing ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister/and God help the sister who comes between me and my man’ (Irving Berlin from White Christmas). Years later you are lucky enough to be able to sit at the top of Rockefeller Center with the snow falling over New York skyscrapers. Rosie is ten feet away from you achingly singing a heart-wrenching Jimmy Webb ballad (he had come a long way from ‘Up Up and Away’). And then you find this video clip of the California babe who had pounded out ‘You’re no good, you’re no good’. She too has mellowed and deepened, two goddesses in duet. It was in fact Linda Ronstadt who first brought the song forward, and brought Clooney aboard.
In choosing this song, I wanted to pay homage to all of the classic folk/rock and pop I grew up with. So many of the songs of the sixties and seventies have become part of the ‘American Songbook’. But it turns out that this is in fact a theatre song that Jimmy Webb wrote for a telling of Ray Bradbury’s story Dandelion Wine; so as it happens all my selections this week have a theatrical provenance.
If you want to be awed, go to wikipedia and read (and read and read) about these two artists (really artists, not just in the jargony sense of today); women who started from a height of very young success, then took rocky roads to explore, grow and arrive somewhere else, which is partly what this song is about. From a lyric point of view there are so many surprises and quirks (do you know another song with the word ‘vaporize’ in it?). If you read the lyrics separately, almost every image/concept in the song is repeated twice, laddering against the melody. (“Night turns to dawn and dreams to sighs, And sighs change to sweet love that never dies/and love becomes laughter and lullabies’).
The bridge is a prosy exegesis that leads to the ‘deep umber’ poetry of the last verse…the gift of the AABA song is that it is circular (creating a structure of safety and familiarity), but it also takes us on a journey forward. We cross the ‘bridge’ but on the other side is the home we left from, even as we have changed.
Clooney’s gravelly tones and phrasing further deepen this journey…like Barbara Cook, she had young conventional success, then suffered, grew and really ‘found her voice’ in a more expressive way. Ronstadt has always, to my ear, had too consistently clear a voice (shown off best in her mid-career power ballads), but her musicality and sheer beauty work well in duet with Rosie. She is also at her best with a Jimmy Webb song. Hope that this will remind you of the way that ‘life begins and spirits rise’.
If you read yesterday’s entry, you won’t find it surprising that the dream that brought me to New York’s upper west side in 1978 was to write lyrics for musical theatre. I did this off and on, in obscurity, for many years. In various different workshops (ugh, that word!) I was praised by Betty Comden (bless her), critiqued by Charles Strouse (composer of Annie and Bye Bye Birdie), and excoriated by book writer Peter Stone (bless him). I did have my three minutes of unadulterated bliss when a pre-Tony Award winning Victoria Clark sang lyrics of mine as I sat in awe…but eventually I was ‘too old to be a young talent’, as a John Guare character once lamented.
I learned during this time that the collaborative process can be pretty grueling, which brings me to Rodgers and Hart. Their process: Rodgers would write and wait in disciplined frustration, Hart would drink and toil in tormented procrastination. The result was art.
Until my college sophomore year, I would have declared that the lyricists that I most knew and loved were W. S. Gilbert, Oscar Hammerstein, Tom Lehrer, Paul Simon and Cole Porter. Then one night the ‘house-masters’ of our Oberlin dorm invited me for coffee and played Ella Fitzgerald singing Rodgers and Hart. I was familiar with songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Johnny One Note” but the rest were a revelation.
Hearing Mary Cleere Haran doing Rodgers and Hart songs upped the ante. As smooth and musical as Ella, Mary Cleere also invested her own longing and wit when she sang the material. From a show and album entitled “This Funny World”, with Richard Rodney Bennett music directing and on piano, comes today’s song (the album has a lead-in verse, the video has just the song itself).
Mary Cleere (who very sadly died from a bicycle accident at 58) was a smooth purveyor
of witty and erudite narrations in her cabaret appearances. In her obituary, Steven Holden notes an observation she made about Richard Rodgers’ two main collaborators: Hammerstein told us what we “should feel” but Lorenz Hart told us what “we did feel.” Hope you feel the feelings that I do when I listen to Mary Cleere Haran singing this musing and rueful and lovely song.
I grew up surrounded by song, most prominently at the feet–or the fingers– of my grandmother, who lived next door. ‘Grandmere’ grew up in early twentieth century Jewish Harlem, and her youthful and lifelong joy was the musical theatre. Every family gathering included singing around the piano as she played from her boxes of sheet music dating from 1910 on. (There were ten songs from South Pacific alone). So, as I embark on this week-long project, which, of the hundreds of songs I love, do I begin with?
A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that ‘everything I know I learned from the ‘AABA’ song’–the thirty-two bar form that the great American songwriters of the early 1920’s created–Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Porter. Basically, the form uses a title or sentence that generally repeats in the three A sections; the B section or bridge takes you in a different direction, before a recapitulation. The great AABA songs are mini-essays exploring longing, desire, flat-out expressions of love, unanswered questions, moments of being (think ‘All the Things You Are’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘If I Loved You’).
I googled the AABA form, and found that the analytical template was Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I Do?’ Berlin seems like a perfect place to start for me…so many of those songs we sang at my grandmother’s house were by this immigrant saloon boy who became the quintessentially American songwriter. One of my earliest musical-going experiences was seeing a no-longer-spring-chicken but still belting Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun in the mid-sixties. (Her voice still rings in my ears!).
Today’s song is Irving Berlin’s gorgeous ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’. It is Irving Berlin in a haunting mode, a hortatory response to troubled times. It also has one of the greatest music videos ever (in that it was written for an Astaire Rogers film, Follow the Fleet). Writing for Astaire made Irving Berlin jazzier and more ‘sophisticated’; legato and syncopation play with each other. He opens with the long-ish rise and fall of the sentence “There may be trouble ahead”, followed by the shorter exhalations of “while there’s moonlight–and music–and love and romance”, and concludes each verse with the solid title statement. Astaire sings with his whole body, and it is as if Irving Berlin is writing with that physicality in mind. The sequence in the movie is about eight minutes long, so you might want to skip the ‘play within the movie’ attempted suicide set-up and get right to the song…as Cole Porter wrote “You’re the top, you’re a Berlin ballad!”
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