Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

Shakespeare on Broadway – 1Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_Cover

I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

Petruchio_ruins_dinner
Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

Hear the Song, Read the Book

BerlinHear the Song, Read the Book

            I have on my shelves several very large and heavy tomes with titles that contain the “Complete Lyrics” of some well known lyricist. Sometimes I think, paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson, “what can be the use of them is more than I can see.” As the years pass, I do indeed find several uses for them, each one helping me to understand better the development of the American popular song and musical.

By definition, a “popular” song is written for “the people.” That is to say, not for a small elite audience but for most of the public whose lives need a little or a whole lot of reassurance that their thoughts, hopes, fears, points of view, are shared by most of the population. Hearing them expressed in rhymes to a memorable melody bucks one up, lets him know (or at least think) that he is not alone.

In his book “Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim” (Praeger, 1991), Thomas S. Hischak points out that the music is so integrated with the words in many songs that “it is a disservice to the lyricist to have his words sitting there on the page naked without benefit of the music.” Be that as it may, but I feel that some naked lyrics can stand on their own without shame.

In “The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin” (Knopf, 2001), we see for the most part seemingly ingenuous lyrics, using mostly “strong” rhymes. Picking at random, I see in his 1912 “When I lost you” the end rhymes of the refrain: roses, blue, rainbow, dew, me, through, gladness, sadness, you. Skip to the 1950 “Call Me Madam” to find a stanza with these end rhymes: princess, guy, day, princess, guy, pay, another, bring, another, sing, window, sang, say, today. This only seems to show little improvement in his rhyming skills over the years.

However from the same show we get these: analyzing, surprising, nice, patter, matter, twice, shoulder, older, glove, take, ache, love. The “weak” rhymes make things a lot more interesting, as does the a-a-b-c-c-b-d-d-e-f-f-e scheme.

Yes, I know it is unfair to pull out three of the more than 3,000 lyrics Berlin wrote. But my point is that reading his lyrics is not nearly as rewarding as reading those of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Larry Hart. His songs seldom “tell a story,” as did “Cohen owes me ninety-seven dollars” from 1915. Berlin’s specialty was to express an emotion in the simplest terms

Like many of Gilbert’s lyrics, much written by those three can stand alone as pure poetry, a claim that cannot be made for most of Berlin’s. Cole Porter’s “The tale of the oyster” from his “Fifty Million Frenchmen” can be read as a party piece and bring down the house if read well, with its wonderful punch line, which I’ll not reveal here. (You can find it on pp. 87-88 of the Knopf “The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter” or hear it on the New World CD of the complete score.)

Now and then, Gilbert would set up a challenge to himself by necessitating rhymes for such unrhymable words as “executioner.” Those familiar with “The Mikado” will recall his solutions: ablutioner, diminutioner, so you shun her. Porter posed a greater challenge in having to make a long list of things that rhyme with (to give one example for now) “can-can.”

His solution was to finish each end-phrase in the first refrain with the word “can” while having the penultimate syllable rhyme with it. The first few results run thus: Dapper Dan can, Irish Callahan can, Afghanistan can. In the second refrain, he gives us the following: swell can, Ravel can; custodian can, Republican can; Cézanne can, Sudan can, Aga Kahn can, caravan can.

That is, of course, nothing compared with his use of titles in “Brush up your Shakespeare,” in which he now and then cheats as in “kick her right in the Coriolanus” to get a rhyme for “heinous.”

Again, a good actor could render many Porter lyrics as straight poems with no recourse to the music at all, except of course for the natural meter of the verses. So a book of Porter lyrics is something of a Golden Treasury of Sophisticated Poetry.

Mention should be made of Ogden Nash, whose poems are remarkable but whose lyrics for such shows as “One Touch of Venus,” “Two’s Company” and “The Littlest Review” are little quoted out of context. Perhaps “Poems are like liquor but lyrics fade quicker”!

download (2)In the first part of this essay, I took a look at how following in print the collected lyrics of a few song writers could increase our appreciation of their talent. Larry Hart is a particularly good lyricist to study, because his versatility in rhyming where no man has rhymed before (sorry, Capt. Kirk) is his most outstanding characteristic.

But so is his cynicism. Not many lyricists would write that “This can’t be love because I feel so well” or “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe” or “Kiss me and say goodbye, that’s love.” I think an analyst would have a field day with his view of the tender passion. But those aware of his bitterness over his short body topped by a normal sized head and possibly over his sexual preferences can understand his attitude towards love. They can also understand lines like “Though your figure’s less than Greek, though your chin’s a little weak” in the aptly titled song “My funny Valentine.” I think I enjoy reading his lyrics almost as much as I do hearing them sung.

IMG_20150612_0002_NEWHowever, I have considered Hart in past essays and had best pass on to Ira Gershwin. George’s brother did not try for tricky rhymes but for slightly different ways of expressing ideas that had long since become clichés with other lyric writers. His own reminiscences and analyses of many of his songs are contained in his book (and I give the full title) “Lyrics on Several Occasions: A Selection of Stage & Screen Lyrics Written for Sundry Situations; and Now Arranged in Arbitrary Categories. To Which Have Been Added Many Informative Annotations & Disquisitions on Their Why & Wherefore, Their Whom-for, Their How; and Matters Associative” (Limelight Editions).

One of his few bitter comments is directed at those singers who take “’S Wonderful” and supply the missing “it,” thereby ruining the effect entirely. He also says that his greatest challenge came in “Lady Be Good” when George gave him a melody that was so syncopated as to leave Ira at a loss for lyrics that would fit. But the very problem provided the answer. And so the first line of the refrain became “Fascinating rhythm” and the rest flowed easily from there.

Happily, Knopf also has “The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin” in its catalogue. Here one can appreciate every lyric from his first recorded try in 1917, “You may throw all the rice you desire” to those he wrote in 1964 for the film “Kiss Me, Stupid.” Without being self-consciously novel—Hart and Porter do tend to show off their cleverness—Ira gives his lyrics a more colloquial sound and a generally optimistic tone. In fact, one of his really downbeat songs, “But not for me,” could easily be taken for a Hart lyric were it not for lines that end with a pun like “The climax of the plot should be the marriage knot, but there’s no knot for me”.

51tdhuRmF3L._SX469_BO1,204,203,200_“Noel Coward: the Complete Lyrics” is published by The Overlook Press (1998) and uses the identical format to that of the Knopf editions. Coward comes closest to Gilbert in his use of satire, light and keen. His most popular fun song is “Mad dogs and Englishmen” who go out in the midday sun, which laughs at the Brit in the far flung parts of the Empire. His most popular sexy song is “Let’s do it,” which boasts of music by Cole Porter and which is performed to perfection by Coward himself on several recordings. Interestingly, he nearly speaks the lyrics, making it sound like a poetry reading more than a song recital, which is my very point in these essays.

His nastiest lyrics must be “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” (1943) in which he devastates any post-war pleas for “forgive and forget.” I point out only two examples to give the flavor of this song: “Let’s help the dirty swine again/To occupy the Rhine again”; “Let’s let them feel they’re swell again and bomb us all to hell again.”

For the most part, however, reading Coward’s lyrics is like reading the Jeeves novels of that other lyricist, P. G. Wodehouse. They conjure up an Oscar Wildean world of useless but amiable upper class twits expressing themselves with the utmost sophistication and laughing at themselves without realizing it. Even non-satirical songs like “Somewhere I’ll find you” are aimed at an audience a little more sophisticated those of Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin.

I would like to pursue this line of thought in other essays with other lyricists. However, I still recommend reading lyrics divorced from the melodies as a source of innocent merriment or as an insight into the personalities of the authors and the times in which they lived.

Gilbert Was There First

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWGilbert Was There First

The more I listen to my Gilbert & Sullivan records and attend all too rare performances of those “Savoy” operas (operettas? musical comedies?), the more I marvel at how William S. Gilbert anticipated so many bits that show up in musicals written long afterwards.

For example, we have what I call the Negative Love Song. Tired of composing lyrics of the I-love-you variety, Oscar Hammerstein II decided to let the male lead in “Oklahoma!” tell the female lead “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” and so on, as you well know. That done, he could not return to the clichés of yesteryear; so when “Carousel” came along, the smitten male lead had to sing “If I loved you” in what we might as well call the Conditional Mode Love Song.

However, Gilbert had already invented that sort of thing in “The Mikado.” Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum cannot be intimate in any way, since she is already engaged to Ko-Ko. Therefore the best he could sing back in 1885 is “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in tender tone….” and set the standard that Hammerstein was to take up half a century later.

To end the film version of a particularly plotless musical called “Roberta,”it was  decided to accompany an extended fashion show sequence with a new Jerome Kern song titled     “Lovely to Look At.” In much the same way, the Ascot sequence in “My Fair Lady” opens with what amounts to a fashion show in which the Very Very Rich parade to the tune of “The Ascot Gavotte.” Again Gilbert was there first.

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Act II costumes for “The GrandDuke” in the original production

The second act of “The Grand Duke” opens with these stage directions: “Enter a procession of the members of the theatrical company (now dressed in the costumes of Troilus and Cressida), carrying garlands, playing on pipes, citharae, and cymbals….” In short, a costume parade–and this in 1896.

Praising a character for his bad traits goes back at least to Aristophanes. One of the more memorable numbers in “L’il Abner” is Marryin’ Sam’s hymn to Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose cowardly conduct during the Civil War made him into a local hero in Dogpatch. Yet who is this Cornpone other than the Duke of Plaza Toro who sings his own praises in “The Gondoliers” like this:

 

In enterprise of martial kind

When there was any fighting,

He led his regiment from behind–

He found it less exciting.

But when away his regiment ran,

His place was at the fore, O–

 

and like that.

Of course, any playwright worth his salt must know his theatre history; and certainly anyone working on the book or lyrics of a musical must know his Gilbert & Sullivan. Few lyricists, however, can stand in the same class as Gilbert when it comes to tricky rhymes. Now and then, he would set himself a rhyming challenge such as that in “The Mikado” when Pooh-Bah has to come up with perfect rhymes for the word “executioner.” Results? “Ablutioner,” “diminutioner,” and finally “you shun her.”

Coleporter
Cole Porter learned a lot from Gilbert

Cole Porter decided to see what he could do with the word(s) “Can-can” in the musical of the same name: “If a sultan in a caravan can” and “If a kilted Scottish clan can” are only two of the incredibly many he produced. (I was urged to mention also “puberty/Schubert-y” from “Kiss Me Kate” by a Porter fan.) And do not forget what Larry Hart did in “To Keep My Love Alive,” in which he rhymes “possibilities/ill at ease/kill at ease” and most notably “a wreck to me/horse’s neck to me/appendectomy.” Now that is in the same class as Gilbert’s “din afore/Pinafore” “strategy/sat a gee” couplings in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

And speaking of patter songs, the only one that is worthy of that description in a 20th century musical is the polysyllabic list of wonders to be seen under the big top in “Barnum.”

One last reminder. Gilbert was at his best in social and political satire. The one musical worthy to stand beside the best of the Savoy series was written in respectful imitation of G&S by the brothers Ira and George Gershwin and is called “Of Thee I Sing.” But that is worth an article all on its own.

Musical Tales for April Fool-la-la

Kiss Me KateMusical Tales for April Fool-la-la

Back in 2006, I did an April Fool article about an imaginary composer named Parifollo. I thought that it was silly enough for people to know it was a spoof and even that some readers would readily see that the name consisted of an anagram for “April fool.”  I received two letters asking for more information about this person; and I had to give the embarrassing reply that it was a joke. A joke on me, it would seem.

Which leads me to think of other unexpected twists the world of music has to offer. Of course, one must in these matters remember the Italian saying, “Se non e vero, e ben trovato” (If it isn’t true, at least it’s well made up).

Sony BMG musician Joshua Bell performs at a Sony media event at the 2007 International CES in Las Vegas, Nevada January 7, 2007. REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES)
Would you recognize this man?

Very often in the wacky world of the theatre, a great joke backfires on the joker.

Although I already told this one in an article some time ago, it is worth a retelling to show how a joke can turn back on the perpetrator. When “Kiss Me Kate” was in rehearsals, the actor playing Bill, Harold Lang, was pestering Cole Porter for a song in Act II that would let him show the audience what he could do as a soloist. As an act of meanness, Porter deliberately wrote him a lousy number called “Bianca.” Lang brought down the house every night. Porter’s reaction is not recorded, as far as I can find in my research.

220px-SingingFoolAnother joke-is-on-the-joker is the one three songsmiths tried to play on Al Jolson when the superstar asked for another song to sing in the 1928 film “The Singing Fool.” The songwriting team decided to give him the most clichéd lyrics ever in the setting of the most banal tune they could devise. Jolson loved it and made it a smash hit. “Sonny Boy” is the item in question.

Here is an instance when no joke was intended; but, as Cyrano says, “How fate loves a jest.”

This tale was told to me by a person who attended one of my Elderhostel talks at Pilgrim Pines in New Hampshire. It was back in 1943 when a friend of hers phoned her from Boston to rave about a show she had just seen that was due to open in New York shortly after. She told her to get tickets for “Away We Go!” the day they went on sale, because they would be very hard to get once it opened.

215px-Okla_bway_1943The New York woman checked the papers every day for the announcement that “Away We Go!” tickets were on sale, but it never came. This is what happened. The original version of the musical was supposed to open with a hoedown in which the words, “away we go” were prominent. The creators then felt they wanted a novel beginning. So they did away with the chorus, had the curtain open on a single woman on a porch while a man’s voice was heard off-stage (mind you) singing a hymn to the new day and to the corn crop. The title had been changed to reflect the rewrite. It was called “Oklahoma!” when it came to New York, and tickets went like platinum  hotcakes, all the while the poor woman was waiting for “Away We Go” to be announced.

Here is another case in which there was no joke intended but one of the parties involved made it into one. When Gilbert was rehearsing a love scene for his latest collaboration with Sullivan, he found that his tenor was feeling the Grand Emotion a little too much and was delivering the word “rapture” with too much force. “No, no,” Gilbert commanded, “modified rapture.” Being something of a literalist, the tenor read the phrase “Modified rapture!” with equal force. Gilbert was delighted and the line has been read thus ever since. (And they say that tenors…. Well, never mind.)

If more examples come to mind, I will gladly add them.