Essay Series Essays

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.”

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.

Concepts of music Essays Uncategorized

I Have a Song to Sing, O!

BalladI Have a Song to Sing, O!

When the players arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” so he can catch the conscience of the King,” Shakespeare had a problem. Since the characters in “Hamlet” speak for the most part in iambic pentameter and the players will speak in iambic pentameter in the play within the play, the challenge was to make the “Gonzago” dialogue SOUND like dialogue while the dialogue of “Hamlet” would still sound natural.

Shakespeare’s solution to this problem was to make the dialogue of the inner play sound old fashioned and clunky relative to the speech of the “real” characters. In musical work, opera or musical comedy or whatever, most of the songs are supposed to be extensions of the spoken dialogue (as in “The Magic Flute” or “The Mikado) or as emotional highlights in a work in which all the lines are sung. But now and then, the plot requires that a “song” be sung as a song and not as dialogue. How to deal with this?

Mozart had this problem in “Le Nozze di Figaro” when Cherubino is asked to sing his ditty to the Countess. Of course, these characters do nothing but singing—so how to make the song sound like a song rather than the sung-dialogue that is the very nature of opera? The best even Mozart could do is make the orchestra sound like the guitar that Suzanna usually makes believe she is playing while Cherubino warbles away. (See picture above.)

And how familiar is Don Giovanni’s serenade to his own (usually feigned) accompaniment on a lute! And the Merry Widow’s tale of Villia! And so on down the line.

Very early into Act I of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Seviglia,” the Count must sing a serenade; and again, he is provided with a guitar that he should actually play if he can while vocalizing. In the third act, Rosina has a music lesson, and it is the context that makes it sound like the character is engaged in a song.

In Wagner, two examples “songs” that have to sound like songs and not part of the opera that contains them are the hymn to Venus and the contest songs in “Tannhauser” and the “Prize Song” in “Die Meistersinger.” The first has a lute accompaniment, while the latter example is simply more melodic than is the rest of the score.

Chaliapin as a singing Mephistopheles in 1915

When Brander and afterward Mephistopheles are asked to sing a song in both Gounod’s “Faust” and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust,” the former obliges with his Song of the Rat (curtailed in the Gounod version) and the devil delivers the Song of the Golden Calf in Gounod and the Song of the Flea in Berlioz. Somehow, all four do sound like songs, despite the fact that everything up to then has been sung. The same is true about the serenade that the Devil sings in both versions, as well as Gretchen’s Spinning Song. It might be psychological, but they do somehow sound different from the other numbers.

The reason, perhaps, that so many musical comedies are concerned with a troupe putting on a show is that there is lots of occasion for a song to be thrown in as part of the show within the show and therefore needing no motivation for its appearance. The question for a discerning composer is how to make the song sound as if it is not part of the framing plot but part of the show-within-the-show.

Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_CoverCole Porter tried in “Kiss Me Kate” to have the “Taming of the Shrew” songs sound more like Renaissance pieces than the songs sung backstage. So “Why can’t you behave?” (a framing plot song) should not sound too much like “Tom, Dick or Harry” (a “Taming” song). In long-forgotten ‘Me and Juliet,” is quite impossible to know when heard out of context which song belongs at which level. Is “No other love have I” part of the framing plot or of the show they are rehearsing?

In “Pajama Game,” the song “Too darn hot” takes place during a show given by the pajama workers, while “Hernando’s Hideaway” is part of the main plot. I hear little difference between them. “There’s no business like show business” might be part of Buffalo Bill’s show in “Annie Get Your Gun” or might be an expression of joy or an explanation of what life is like in show business. The last choice is the true one, but out of context it is impossible to tell.

215px-Guys_and_dollsTake as a last case in point “Guys and Dolls.” “Bushel and a peck” is sung by the chorus on a stage, while “Sue me” is part of the plot. The latter is more dramatic, the former more four-square.  In fact, “Bushel” and “Take back your mink” are sung in a nasal tone by the chorus girls to underline even more that this is a “song” number and not a plot number. Even one unfamiliar with the show could tell which is a main plot, which a show-in-a-show number. But this is quite rare in musical comedy—and indeed even rarer in opera.

A composer in my area wrote the music, lyrics and book to a musical. The second act began with the full cast on stage and someone saying to one of the leads, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” Well, further experience will surely have him avoid such a sledgehammer cue. On the other hand, it was the best musical moment in the work. The rest was reboiled retro.

I wonder if anyone of my readers could give me some examples of “songs” within musicals that are unquestioningly songs being sung as opposed to plot songs that the audience assumes are being spoken in singing voice with an invisible orchestra playing.

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical
Getting together a musical takes a lot of cooperation between cast, choreographer, and so on. This shot of those who created the 1929 “Garrick Gaieties” with a Rodgers and Hart score, gives some idea of what goes on.

The Singer & the Song

Although I mentioned this aspect of musicals in the last essay, I want to elaborate on it in this concluding section.

A play—even “just a musical”—is drama. Something is happening up on that stage that means something to the character(s) and therefore should mean something to the audience. When Mame’s partygoers open the show with that paean in her praise, the audience is supposed to know nothing about her. Whoever is playing the title character must make you feel she deserves all that praise. If the actress plays it as if Mame feels she DESERVES the world on a platter, the song doesn’t work. In other words, the number must establish Mame’s character and that character should be a likable one. After all, most of the action springs from her attitude towards life.

Faster, girls, faster

When Eddie Foy, Jr. sings about the need to keep everything going on time in “The Pajama Game,” he must try to convince not only the characters on stage (although it is against their interests) but also the audience. Again this number comes very early in the show, and it must have some dramatic purpose. Of course it establishes his character, but it also sets the theme of what management wants versus what labor wants.

Take “Why Can’t the English” from early in “My Fair Lady.” As usually played, it is sung to Pickering, who does not need to be convinced. It should be sung as a way of convincing the crowd waiting for the rain to stop and perhaps even the flower girl herself. It is Higgins riding his hobbyhorse, Higgins on his soapbox, preaching. Not only does it perfectly give us his character, but it also sets off the train of events for the play by putting the idea in Liza’s mind that perhaps she should do something about her speech.

“Steam Heat” with original cast

Some songs, say “Steam Heat” in the second act of “Pajama Game,” are mere padding, and the best we can hope from these numbers is lively delivery and good dancing. Of course, those interpolated numbers designed to please the audience and/or give some star a “turn” might be an exception of sorts. Consider again the “Steam Heat” number. It is supposed to be part of a show within “Pajama Game.” Therefore the “audience” being addressed is not the real one but the invisible members of the cast who are supposed to be watching the performers.

Take, however,  “Were Thine That Special Face” from the show within a show in “Kiss Me Kate” is indeed being sung by an actor to his ex-wife and can deliver quite a dramatic punch if the actress reacts to the words that he is addressing not only to Kate but to the woman he still loves. A good director can bring out quite a bit of drama here by giving his Kate a “silent script.”

Let us consider a song sung by a character alone on stage. I have already expressed my dislike for singing directly to the audience. So there is Freddy in front of Liza’s house ready to burst into “The Street Where You Live.” Now the “you” is inside and theoretically out of earshot. But Freddy hopes she can hear and sings it to the door of the house—which is probably upstage, but the singer can “cheat” a little and be seen and heard to advantage.

41X5QAZ6STL._AA160_Of course, the most famous soliloquy is called “Soliloquy” (from “Carousel”). Here is a long number that falls into several parts. It is clear that the singer is talking to himself; Billy would NEVER confide his private thoughts to anyone, even the audience. Here a good director could get around things by (perhaps) having him sing one section to the sky, another to the sea, a clump of seaweed, some jetsam on the beach—or just staring into space, as we actually do when thinking to ourselves about very important things.

(See my suggestion about this in the previous section.)

One will argue that singing directly to the audience is no sin against drama. I feel that even in a straight play, breaking the fourth wall destroys all the illusion that theatre is supposed to create. Do you really want Liza or Billy or Whomever to admit that he/she is nothing but a character in a play, and that all the problems the play has created are nothing but a work of fiction? That this is “only a play”? And don’t retort that Shakespearean characters do just that. First of all, no one is really sure that the Globe actors spoke directly to the audience; and if so, the traditions of theatrical “realism” of that time are not those of ours.

230px-South_Pacific_PlaybillAnd just who is being addressed when the sailors in “South Pacific” proclaim “There is nothing like a dame”? Most directors have them face the auditorium and belt it out. How much more natural that they should be telling it to one another or to the non-military persons on the stage or to Bloody Mary, et cetera. After your set designer and costumers have gone through all the agonies of giving you the most realistic set possible, why ruin it with easy staging?


Not long ago, when I expressed these opinions, someone from a local college Theatre Department reposted, “Well, that’s the way they do it on Broadway.” Okay, I shrugged, “Just because they do that way, I guess you must slavishly imitate them.” There was no further response.

So much more to say, so little space to say it in. We shall see.


Essays Production values

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

Two of the four twins in “The Boys from Syracuse”

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

How many times have you sat with a fixed smile through a local production of “Oklahoma!” or “West Side Story,” all the while knowing every word of the lyrics and most of the dialogue because the high school did it just a year ago and the film version has been on AMC or TCM a dozen times in the past few years? But you have come not so much to enjoy the production as to witness the performances. After all, your daughter will show up for a second in a crowd scene or your dentist will soliloquize about “My Boy Bill” or–worse still–your wife will play the female lead’s best friend and you have been running lines with her for the past three months.

How much more, you think, you would enjoy a good production of “Pal Joey” or “Girl Crazy” or even any Cole Porter play other than “Anything Goes” or “Kiss Me Kate.” Where I live and back in 2001 when I first wrote this essay, the Lions Club is getting under weigh for the year’s Big Show: “Hello Dolly.” At the same time, a town 15 miles eastward is working on “Guys & Dolls.” Last year it was a “My Fair Lady” in which all the local talent did its best, some with “Cockney” accents that were totally unintelligible and almost none with any feeling for the Shavian dialogue.

Every year I make a pest of myself advocating a Rodgers and Hart instead of a Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Babes in Arms” is loaded with hits, “The Boys From Syracuse” has somewhat fewer “big numbers” (e.g. “This Can’t Be Love”) but a far better “book” cribbed from Shakespeare, and “Pal Joey” has several great tunes and characters who actually interest us. So why “The Sound of Music” yet again or “Fiddler on the Roof”? The answer is blatantly clear: Box Office.

A summer stock company in Vermont puts out a questionnaire each year, asking for requests for the upcoming season. Well, you should easily guess what titles show up year after year. Is it that people are just comfortable with the same old musicals? Is it that they simply do not know of the existence of other musicals–or they know them by title but know nothing about the quality of the scores or lyrics? I cannot second-guess what is in their minds. I give courses in Broadway History, so I have more of a pool from which to make my selections. And yet….

From the point of view of the group putting on the production, alas, the bottom line cannot be artistic, it must be financial. The best performed “Pardon My English” (a once recorded, never to my knowledge performed musical by the Gershwin brothers) that plays to empty houses must be considered less desirable than a very mediocre “Carousel” that packs them in. This is an unfortunate fact of theatrical life, but there we are.

Now I do not mean to imply that yet another “South Pacific” that is well done is to be despised. There are reasons for repeating the Top Ten or Twelve over and over. One of them is audience expectation. They know the music and words ahead of time. There is always that thrill of recognition when “Nothing Like a Dame” strikes up. But what about the thrill of discovery when an audience hears, possibly for the first time, the extremely clever lyrics to “Way Out West on West End Avenue” from “Babes in Arms” or the wonderful Gilbert & Sullivanish chorus of Supreme Court Judges in the second act of “Of Thee I Sing”?

My local Lions Club once had a bad box office experience with “Pippin” and has been paralyzed into a conservative mode ever since. It so happens that “Pippin” has very little music worth hearing, its chief merit lying in the choreography of Bob Fosse and the sexy costumes of the warrior-women. But what if they had chosen, say, “Babes in Arms”?

Rodgers seated, Hart standing, both outstanding

Okay, there we have the quintessential “Let’s put on a show, gang” plot that would call for a lot of local youthful talent and songs that almost anyone who can carry a tune can put over with a bang: “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “The Lady is a Tramp.”  And the less-familiar numbers are almost as good as those standards.  Or try Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” unfortunately undermined for a long time by the adaptation called “Crazy For You.” Here we have “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me?” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me.”

Hey, these are the great bubble-headed musicals of the 20s and 30s when you went to a musical to hear music, not to see a ship hit an iceberg, a chandelier fall, or some cat apotheosized on a floating tire! I firmly believe it is the duty of these community groups to bring to their audiences the best of the old with a fresh approach–but without camping them up or otherwise patronizing the product.

One word of warning to anyone I have actually convinced. The publishers of “Babes in Arms” have had the book rewritten for some inexplicable reason. All the songs are still in place and there is still a group of youngsters who want to put on a show, but the motivations are all different. Be sure to say so in your playbills, please, lest the audience get a misconception of what Rodgers and Hart had in mind.



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.