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

When Composers are Victims of Their Own Success


DixieWhen Composers are Victims of Their Own Success 

There comes a time in some composers’ lives that they create a piece that is tremendously popular (a Good Thing, surely) but that causes them considerable grief afterwards.

I have already in past articles mentioned how Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” was so well received that critics said of his next show, “Can-can,” that is was not up to Porter’s standards. Did he, by any means, regret having written “Kiss Me Kate”? Of course not.

Pietro Mascagni

Take the case of two men who became “one-opera” composers. Pietro Mascagni wrote his “Cavalleria Rusticana” between 1888 and 1890 for a contest. There is a story that he was so unsure of the work that his wife mailed it in without telling him. And that is the one of his 17 or so operas that has stayed in the repertory. Yes, occasionally his “L’Amico Fritz” is performed for the sake of its only popular number, “The Cherry Duet,” and “Amica” has been recorded on a DVD as a curio.

The same can be said of Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1892), which has overshadowed all his other works. Perhaps his “La Boheme” would still be regularly performed had not Puccini’s version made it impossible.

Did either composer regret having made one big hit and no other? Certainly they regretted the latter, just as certainly not the former.

But the history of music abounds in works that were regretted by the composer, often for the most ironic of reasons.

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Daniel Emmett

Daniel Emmett helped originate the Minstrel Show, something of an embarrassment for the more sensitive folk today. As a lad, he had a talent for writing new lyrics to old tunes, one of his earliest successes being “Old Dan Tucker.” In 1830 or 1831, the minstrel troupe of which he was a part needed a song for the final segment, the Walk-around, and Emmett was asked to dash one off overnight. He did and the song was so popular that other minstrel troupes asked for permission to use it. It was granted but the composer/lyricist lost the copyright by doing so.

Years went by and the tune was turned into a quickstep, thereby increasing still more its exposure and popularity. But then the Civil War came and the Confederate Army (or Rebels, depending on one’s inclinations) took it up as a stirring Southern quasi-national anthem, often sung to altered lyrics. It is said that Emmett claimed he was sorry he ever wrote that “damned” song.

Oh, the title? “Dixie.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff often stated that he grew to hate his too-popular “Prelude in C sharp minor” because he could not give a concert any place in the world without having to play it for an overly enthusiastic audience. Satirist Anna Russell once gave a performance and omitted her spoof-analysis of the Ring Operas for just once. When reprimanded for doing so by an audience member, she replied that she thought that people knew it too well and were becoming bored by it. She never omitted it again.

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The girl who sang the song that was almost cut

Though she was not the composer, I sometimes wonder if Judy Garland ever dreaded having to sing “Over the rainbow” during any of her acts. If she did, there is no record of her ever saying so. [Ironically, the song was nearly dropped from the film because it “held up the action.”] That is the trouble when a success makes one wish a song or a routine had never caught on quite as much as it did.

At times, it is not a just single work but a new kind of work that might lead an artist into a blind alley. For example, while working on “Oklahoma!” Oscar Hammerstein II stated that he just couldn’t go on writing the typical love song forever. True, Larry Hart before him did write anti-love songs such as “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” And so Hammerstein took a leaf from “The Mikado” and let Curly and Laurie sing a “negative love song”: “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” lest “people will say we’re in love.”

That done, he had to provide a similar one for “Carousel” and came up with a “conditional love song”: “If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way….” [Compare Gilbert’s “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in the tender tone.”]

However, Hammerstein was bright enough to find other ways to express love without cliché or negativity (especially in “The King and I,” where love between the leads is quite impossible). Still, let us not forget “The gentleman is a dope” from the excellent but almost never performed “Allegro,” which turns the “he is wonderful” lyric on its head.

Again, I turn to my readers for other examples of successes that led to their creators’ regret. I thank them in advance.

Essays Lyrics

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.

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.”

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.

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 4

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical


DanceThe Role of the Choreographer

Ever since Agnes de Mille integrated the dance with the other aspects of the musical in “Oklahoma,” it has become too old fashioned to follow the format of a song, a motivationless dance, and then a reprise of the song. Will is back from Kansas City and the outlanders are naturally curious about the latest dance craze in the big city. So Will sings a song about Kansas City and this leads naturally into a dance that he demonstrates and that the others pick up with surprising ease. (Harold Hill gets to do the same thing in River City.)

And what musical could expect to succeed without a Dream Ballet such as Laurie’s that all but ends the first act of “Oklahoma!”? Less integrated shows like “Promises, Promises” are sure to throw in an office party. Similarly “Damn Yankees” includes a show given solely, it seems, to give Lola a Mambo number. And how is it possible to sing the praises of Mame or Dolly without a big production number that leans heavily on dance?

Now as one barely able to walk and chew gum at the same time, I had a long discussion with a talented choreographer here in Keene, NH named Barbara Andrews, who has long been acquainted with the task of getting local adults and high schoolers to hoof it convincingly during major musical productions in this area.

The first thing to do (she explained) is to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the music, picturing in the mind how it will translate into dance movements. Refine your ideas into simple steps, not forgetting facial expressions, and keeping in mind the space available on the stage, the costumes that might hamper complex movement, and even the makeup.

215px-Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterThen do some research. Barbara spoke to a rabbi before choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof.” She learned about why the sexes never touch while dancing, the Russian version of Jewish folk dances, and the movements during the Sabbath prayer. I can vouch for how vividly it all paid off during the Lions Club performance several years ago.

Some dances are supposed to be badly done, such as those in “Cabaret” and “Guys and Dolls.”  Here the audience must realize that it is the characters that are terrible, not the performers. (If you know how good a singer Patricia Rutledge really is, you can appreciate how terrible she sounds as Hyacinth Bucket! It takes a great actor to play a bad actor.)

During rehearsals, to build up muscle memory, demonstrate (say) a 32-bar phrase and have them repeat it until the body learns it (much like learning to touch-type or play a beginner’s piano piece). The most difficult thing is getting people to focus on what they are doing. Barbara finds men, especially athletes, somewhat more willing to learn. The two sexes learn in different ways—but those without a sense of rhythm can never be taught to dance well.

Once up, dancer cannot wait for music to end before landing

The better dancers should be used as section leaders, some up front, some in the back, so the others can follow them. Do not hide the poorer dancers; try to showcase whatever strengths they might have. And do not be too proud to collaborate with the better ones. Even more so, work closely with the music director so that the tempi are just right for dancing. This becomes a special problem when the dancers have to sing at the same time. There was a case in England in which a conductor who insisted on a certain slow tempo was told by a singer-dancer that the law of gravity made it impossible for him to remain in the air long enough to coordinate with the music. When the conductor insisted that the words be heard at that point, the performer reminded him that the words were Tra-la-la-la. The tempo quickened.

[The conductor was Malcolm Sargent, the singer-dancer was Martyn Green, the plays was “The Gondoliers,” and the song was “For the merriest fellows are we.”]

Each play presents its own problems to a choreographer. The dances in “Oklahoma!” and “Paint Your Wagon” can be patterned after modern square dancing with a shot of modern ballet; but when Harold Hill is asked to show the crowd the latest step from the big cities, the dance should be as authentic as possible.

Now and then, the choreographer is called upon to direct crowd scenes when the director feels inadequate or pressed for time. The restaurant scene in “Hello, Dolly” is a good example, with its complex mixture of dancing, pantomime, waiting on tables in the period manner, and dialogue. Many a choreographer, in fact, has done more of the directing than has the director. It happened in my experience when the over-committed director, who also had a lead in the show (never advisable), decided that any stage movement during a song or chorus counted as choreography. The results were marvelous, but the director got the credit.

What next? Rehearsals, of course.

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical


Choosing the Musical

There is nothing more guaranteed to cause sleepless nights and a general feeling of “Why am I doing this?” than deciding to produce a musical with local talent for a local audience. It is even worse when you have to do this every year as a function of the Lodge or Club or Whatever of which you are a member in charge of annual or twice-a-year musicals.

No matter what problems will arise later – and they will, they will! – your first task is to choose the musical. And right off the bat, no matter what you suggest, at least half of those concerned will not like it. But where does one even begin to prepare a preliminary list of possibles?

Take a charming musical like “I Do, I Do.” Well, that’s impossible for starters since there are only two characters in the cast. On the other hand, “Les Miserables” calls for a massive cast and stage technology that is most likely impossible in the high school auditorium or church basement that are the only likely venues in most small towns – or even in large ones, since larger spaces are usually too expensive to rent.

So you must find a play that can be mounted, has at least four or five lead characters, plenty of smaller roles, and those should include some non-singing roles for locals who never get into musicals because they simply cannot sing.

Complete recording

Look at “The Boys from Syracuse” by Rodgers and Hart or “Girl Crazy” by George and Ira Gershwin. Fabulous tunes, just the right size casts. So why are they seldom done? “Name recognition”! Unless most of the potential ticket buyers immediately recognize the name and already know half of the songs, they will not line up at the box office. And that is why, alas, we have organizations doing “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” and “Hello, Dolly” in endless cycles. That last one especially has one memorable song, the title one, but it is the title that draws them in.

“The Sound of Music” (really a poor score that sounds like a good one) and “The Music Man” (a great score that sounds like a great one) are frequent choices because they get local kids on stage. And each single kid translates into tickets for two parents, four grandparents, neighbors without kids of their own in the cast, teachers who have or have had that kid in class, and heaven knows who else that has been emotionally blackmailed into attending.

In fact, I saw a local “My Fair Lady” in which a nun kept leading the same line of youngsters up and down every time there was a street scene. (Thank goodness they did not insert a song for them!) When children were introduced into the Big Production scene in “Mame,” their presence at least made some dramatic sense. Who can argue with Cute?

I really wish Congress would pass an Audience Act to protect it from the usual musicals for (say) a decade, so they would seem a little fresh when allowed to be revived once again. Sitting through yet another “South Pacific” anticipating every word before it is sung was a recent painful experience for me – although the rest of the audience seemed to love it. One problem with this play, for example, is that the “Honey Bun” shtick is done so often at “talent shows” with some local clown dressed up in the hula outfit that it is nothing special when it shows up in the full show.  And that goes Ditto for the “Gimmick” number in “Gypsy.”

“But Frank,” I was once told by a theatre veteran one-third my age, “art has nothing to do with it.” More often than not, these musicals are mounted for a charity and as good as “Girl Crazy” might be (and it is marvelous!), it might leave 10 empty seats and therefore will not be done.

“Man of La Mancha” might be a good bet if you omit or whitewash the rape scene and if you can find a charismatic enough lead. “Of Thee I Sing,” for example, would be a welcome and timely delight – if you could convince the rest of your committee to at least hear the recordings that are readily available on CDs. And so on.

And one important consideration is the increasing cost of royalties. This alone might preclude a very popular musical from your list of choices.

But even if you find the perfect musical, you have to surmount the next problem. Can you find a director who is ready to take it on?

So in our next section, let us consider this delicate problem of Finding a Director.


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.