Essays Music history

The Right Musical at the Right Time

215px-Okla_bway_1943The Right Musical at the Right Time

Just what made mega-hits out of such shows as “Oklahoma!” “Carousel” and “Annie Get Your Gun”? That is, putting aside their great scores and fabulous lyrics. It is almost like that joke: “Just because she can sing beautifully, dance magnificently, and act superbly—why do you think she’s talented?” However, my opening question is not quite in that category.

19411217_Remember_Pearl_Harbor-Sammy_KayeConsider. “Oklahoma!” opened in March 1943. “Remember Pearl Harbor” was still a rallying cry and young men were dying for a cause that was clear and an enemy that was identifiable. Hollywood was churning out propaganda films in which Robert Taylor was gunning down troops of Japanese and every regiment had an even distribution of ethnic types. While Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson and Irene Dunne were showing us “what we were fighting for,” Rodgers and Hammerstein, consciously or not, were creating a myth—just at the time it was needed.

The plot? Will the nice Curly or the evil Judd take Laurie to the picnic? (No joke, that’s all it boils down to.) Since that is not exactly what is needed to fill up over two hours on stage, the required second plot involves Ado Annie and Will and the sort of life they will lead. Not very promising.

downloadHowever, using the plot of “Green Grow the Lilacs” (a flop), the team gave the audience (again, above and beyond the score and lyrics), believable people living in a territory that is not yet a state, going through a small crisis that will or will not lead to marriage and babies, and somehow tying together the political background, the social problems (can the farmer and the cowboy ever be friends?) and the personal relationships—all into a unified whole that plays more like a myth than a typical musical.

As I said in at least two other essays, the show opens up with a hymn to the crops and to a beautiful morning. It ends with a salute to the new state and returns to “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” (So many people still believe the show ends with the title song!) This is just what the 1943 audiences needed: reassurance that there will indeed be many more beautiful mornings, “when the lights go on again all over the world,” as singer Vera Lynn was at the same time promising the British soldiers.

41X5QAZ6STL._AA160_“Carousel” opened (symbolically) in April 1945, a month closely connected with the blossoming of springtime. If the audience was surprised to find “Oklahoma!” beginning with an off-stage solo instead of the usual chorus, how much more was the “Carousel” audience surprised to see the first act end with the death of the leading male.

Yes, the war was just about over and the monumental task of getting Europe back on its feet was yet to begin. What was to be LEARNED from the slaughter that was the result of not only a single madman but of all the “normal” people who believed him and allowed him to “move ahead” with his plans to dominate a planet? Again, the show tries to answer the questions of the times in terms of individuals.

Billy is allowed to return to make up for what he did to the daughter he died too early to know. Although a ghost, he is still human and fails. The show ends, not with a beautiful morning, but with advice about how to walk through a storm. Never walking alone and having hope in your heart is the answer Hammerstein gives us.

Of course, that is semantic nonsense. But in 1945 it was exactly what audiences wanted to hear, because it SOUNDED good and therefore it was good. (Years later, “Climb every mountain” tried to deliver the same message but sounded simply pretentious. You see, once having succeeded with that sort of ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein were stuck with it.)

61l8uqRwevL._SS280A year and a month later, “Annie Get Your Gun” opened—again, just at the right time. The men were back on the job and women were back on the range—the kitchen range, that is. Factory owners could not help but notice how much better on the whole the women worked on the assembly lines than did the men. But in 1946, the girl that one married had to be as soft and as pink as a nursery, not muscular and grease-stained like Rosie the Riveter.

However, Annie still outshoots the male competitors, showing once again that a woman can do anything you (males) can do. Just the right thought at the right time, although many of the males in the audience took it all as a joke. After all, how many Annies are there in real life? (More than men care to admit, as in the current bid for the presidency.)

The question of the times influencing the musical and the musical influencing the times certainly deserves closer and deeper and more extensive study than just this superficial look. Perhaps future essays will be devoted to just that subject. Yes, “Show Boat” is certainly a candidate. Do my readers have any other suggestions?

Essays Music history

How Annie Got Her Gun


How Annie Got Her Gun

One day in 1945, composer Jerome Kern was summoned to the offices of Rodgers and Hammerstein, now producers as well as composer and lyricist team, and presented with a project. It was called “Annie Get Your Gun” with lyrics and book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields (whose idea it was in the first place). He was suspicious about their not wanting to do the play themselves if it was so promising, but they explained that they did not want to do another western musical after “Oklahoma!”

Kern, who didn’t

Kern was busy with a revival of “Show Boat” slated for two months later, and he was worried about his increasingly high blood pressure. Still, he accepted and a short while later, while walking along 57th Street and Park Avenue, he collapsed. With no identification other than a numbered ASCAP card that he had neglected to sign, he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness.

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Berlin, who did

Irving Berlin was then called in by Rodgers and Hammerstein and offered the assignment. Should he accept, the Fields lyrics would be out the window. He claimed he had no idea of how to write Western lyrics, and Hammerstein is reported to have told him that he need only leave the final “g” off participles.

Soon after, Berlin came in with several songs, was congratulated, and asked to come in with more. When he did, they commented that he had not replayed one song they had liked in particular the time before. Berlin said he left it home because they did not seem to respond positively to it the first time. They said they had been thinking of where to place it in the show because it was so good. And so, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was restored—and the rest is musical history.

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What would she have thought?

The original show opened on May 16, 1946 and ran for 1,147 performances. (“Oklahoma!” had run twice as long.) As Mary Martin put it, “New York is Merman’s town.” Merman brought down the house with one show stopper after the other, supported by baritone Ray Middleton and directed by Joshua Logan. Of the eight major theatre critics at the time, four gave rave reviews and four very good ones. While much of the praise was for Merman herself, critics like Vernon Rice, writing for the “Post,” realized that almost every song was a potential classic. In fact, one woman was heard to exclaim during the Lincoln Center revival, “My God, every song’s a standard!”

51la1f1ojqL._AA160_You can read extended excerpts from the opening night reviews in Steven Suskin’s valuable collection, “Opening Night on Broadway: a Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964),” published by Schirmer Books.

The plot (which was somewhat modified when revived some decades later) is familiar to all.  A hillbilly girl who lives by “doin’ what comes natur’lly” becomes the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and falls in love with sharpshooter Frank Butler. By the time the curtain comes down, in true rite-of-springtime tradition, love conquers all.

Yes, the original version does have stereotypical views of American Indians in a comic way; but that is part of what the Buffalo Bill show was all about, and leaving these views out (as a recent Broadway version did) distorts the show beyond recognition. (What next? A “Merchant of Venice” with no religious references?)

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Hutton, the movie Annie

In a strange way, the Kern-to-Berlin story was repeated when MGM decided to film “Annie Get Your Gun.”  Who else but Judy Garland would even be considered for the title role; and as happens in film making, she pre-recorded all the songs. But her long history of drug use (for which she had MGM itself to thank) and other problems in her life led to her being curtly dismissed. So while Betty Hutton took over (and not too badly, I think), there are still recordings of the Garland soundtrack and two or three rehearsal takes on film.

Still in all, how I would love to pop into an alternate universe to hear “Anne Get Your Gun” with words by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and music by Jerome Kern!

Essays Lyrics

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.

Essays Lyrics

Words, Words, Words…and Music

IMG_20150611_0002_NEWWords, Words, Words…and Music

I always like to play some quiet music while dining in the evening to help the mood and digestion. One very evening, I was playing a CD set with 40 selections of love songs from those old Andre Kostelanetz LPs; and by the time we were halfway through “I don’t know why I love you like I do,” that old nagging question arose in my mind, What makes songs like this last so long?

Of course, there were no vocals in these musical settings, but the words to many of them have become so inextricably bound to the melodies that it is impossible to hear the latter without the lyrics (or as much of them as one recalls) flowing right along. It is like trying to hear the last section of the overture to “William Tell” without hearing “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” far in the back of whatever part of the brain stores these things.

I might have mentioned in an earlier article that a childhood friend of mine had a recording of classical music with childish lyrics written for the selections. And to this day, I cannot hear Offenbach’s “Barcarole” without also hearing “When I float my little toy boat.” And this was back in 1945!

alfred-31120-f (1)Yes, there are surely lyrics that stick in one’s mind as well as the melody to which they are set. Take “Tea for two.” Those three words make little effect alone; but when combined with the rest of the line—“Tea for two and two for tea”—the seven words form a strong DNA-memory link in the synapses of the brain. The line is the next best thing to a palindrome. Another song title that comes close is “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”). These see-saw sentences are not super-clever but they do stick in the memory. In fact, they do not necessarily have to appear at the start of the song at all. It is enough that they come at the end of a refrain, as does the Finian song.

In the past, I have written essays about the clever lyrics of such artists as Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Noel Coward, and Ira Gershwin. Examples of the clever lyric are all too easy to find, but they do not make the entire number into a memory-lingerer. “I’m bidin’ my time because that’s the kind of guy I’m” (from “Girl Crazy”) certainly calls attention to itself, but again the song is seldom if ever sung out of the context of the show.

551561385In some cases, parallelism has no part of making a fragment of lyric memorable. What about “All alone, by the telephone” (Irving Berlin)? Why the devil does that stick around in the memory? It is followed by “Waiting for a ring, a ting-a-ling,” which follows the same pattern: a phrase, a pause, a rhyming phrase. Is it that little pause that does it? Or the anything but clever rhymes of “alone/telephone” and “ring/ting-a-ling”? Who can account for these things?

Another attention-getter title uses a rhyme, “Rock around the clock” and the 1911 Harry Lauder standard “Roamin’ in the gloamin’” being good examples.

Nothing made Ira Gershwin more angry than some vocalist singing “It’s wonderful” instead of the “’Swonderful” that is in the printed lyrics. After all, Ira knew what he was doing in using an unusual form of a phrase, while the singer obviously did not know or did not care.

1943_SM_Mairzy_DoatsTNImage-Lottie_Collins_sings_and_dances_to_the_tunes_of_Ta-Ra-Ra_Boom-de-ay_in_a_Bromo-Seltzer_adThis reminds one, of course, of the nonsense songs like “Mairzy Doats” (which is explained later as “mares eat oats”) and “Hut sut song” (which starts with a lot of Swedish expressions, later explained). The former is always fun to sing to a person not in on the joke, while I have yet to meet a person who understands the latter. With “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” we have simply a catchy nonsense line that has its own appeal without any translation needed. An older example of the nonsense phrase is the 1891 British “Ta-ra-ra-boom-der-e,” a song of which everyone knows the title and not a single word of what comes after it!

i_found_a_million_dollar_baby_music_song_art_invitation-rb13e1fbdf6b14281899fa972d7569309_zk91q_512And what about the use of antithesis? “I found a million dollar baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store” gives a neat contrast between lots of money and a few coins and is therefore memorable. “Red roses for a blue lady” is just as good. And “When the idle rich become the idle poor” is an example of a song (again from “Finian’s Rainbow”) that is never sung outside of the context of the show.

Now there are plenty of songs that have even more clever titles or tag lines but never lasted any appreciable time. But those that have just might owe their longevity to the very elements I have touched on in this essay.

If any Reader can think of more examples for each category—or indeed more categories with examples—I would be most grateful and I thank you in advance.


The Power of Song


There is an old Italian saying, “Si non e vero, e ben trovato.” This translates, more or less, as “If it isn’t true, [at least] it’s well made up.” Still in all, many stories told about songs, their creations, their effects, and so on, sound pretty “ben trovato”; but after some thought about the power of song in our own lives, these stories gain a certain psychological credibility if not a factual one.

$_35Take the tale of a certain pianist sitting at the keyboard in the reception area of a bawdyhouse. As he sang while setting to music the new lyrics written by one Arthur J. Lamb, he heard sobbing behind him; and when he realized that some of the “girls” were washing away their mascara with hot tears, he knew he had a hit on his hands. If these tough cookies were affected by the lyrics, what about the virgins in the respectable drawing rooms and theaters? Harry Von Tilzer was correct. The popularity of “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” is only slightly tarnished a full century after it was first thought out in 1900. I suppose its message is as fresh as ever.

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Lillian Russell looks too tough to let a song get to her

Take the tale of Joseph Stromberg, who was the house composer for Weber & Fields. Poor health and who knows what other problems were parts of a chain of events that led to his death, perhaps by suicide. A manuscript of a song was found in his pocket, words by Robert B. Smith, music by Stromberg. Lillian Russell wanted to sing it in the smash hit “Twirly Whirly” in 1902, but she broke into tears on the first night and could not continue. After that, she made her audience weep with what became her most requested song.

The lyrics? “My evening star I wonder who you are,/Set up so high like a diamond in the sky./No matter what I do/I can’t go up to you,/So come down from there, my evening star.” Banal, cliché-ridden, and powerful in their very simplicity.

Mr. Danks and the latest style in facial adornment

Take the ironic tale of Hart Pease Danks, who read a poem by the editor of a magazine out west and bought it for $3 so he could set it to music. Very much in love with his wife, Danks gave it a sentimental tune befitting the times, 1872; and when it was sung in minstrel shows (this was way before Tin Pan Alley), it became an enormous hit. The ironic part is that he and his wife separated the very next year, and Danks died a lonely man. The song? “Silver Threads Among the Gold.”

Take the tale of a very proper Victorian English gentleman, whose ambition it was to make his name writing oratorios, pieces for the parlor piano-fortes, and perhaps a symphony or two and even an opera. As fate would have it, he fell in with a playwright and made his fortune doing satirical musicals. After their second collaboration, the composer’s brother died; and he wrote a short piece set to a very Victorian set of lyrics. It became an instant hit; but not too many people today realize that Sullivan of the Gilbert & Sullivan team is also the composer of “The Lost Chord.”

250px-When_I_Lost_You_1Take the tale of a very popular American composer-lyricist who married, honeymooned in Cuba, and lost his wife to a disease she contracted on that island. Although this particular man never really showed his true self in any of his lyrics, he penned a few lines that can only show his true and deep grief over the loss of his dead wife. When he had it published, it sold over million copies and is still often sung today. Irving Berlin called it “When I Lost You.”

Take the case of the same composer when he was assigned the complete score of a 1942 film musical. One song in particular was designed to be a Big Hit, another to be something of a throw-away, sung simply by the star seated at a piano. That latter number became the Big Hit as thousands of GI’s so far from home listened with tears in their eyes to broadcasts of “White Christmas.”

Kate Smith

Take the case yet again of Irving Berlin who put into his files a song written for his World War I musical “Yip Yip Yaphank” because he thought it was superfluous and too flag-waving in the worst George M. Cohan tradition. One World War later, a famous singer asked him for a patriotic song and he gave her the rejected number. Thus did Kate Smith and “God Bless America” become forever associated.

And while we are taking the case of that song, consider the lyrics. Most of the words are monosyllables, simple, to the point, and eminently singable in a way that our official national anthem is not. The power of words when combined with the power of music can be more potent than even the Pen, let alone the Sword.

Tell me. What do YOU think are some other songs that still move strong people to tears after many years have rolled by?