Thursday, November 15, 2018


So there I was, right after Veterans Day, as the guest sage at a musical show themed to my book When Broadway Went To Hollywood, about Broadway’s songwriters in the movie industry. Waiting to enter backstage right, with the show’s producer and host, Sean Hartley, I note the strong playing of the pianist, Evan Rees, who has chosen the “main title” music from MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz as his overture.


We all know this piece, eerie yet strangely attractive, so it’s an odd yet evocative choice—a good omen, as these one-night-only songbook retrospectives can devolve into mediocrity unless the folks in charge get adventurous. And I do like powerful pianism, as opposed to the introverted, “polite” kind that suggest someone like Jeb Bush is playing. Evan goes for a big sound, to give the show presence. “He’s good,” I murmur to Sean, and now the action proper has begun, with a clever meme: Darius De Haas is singing Blue Skies, which happens to be the first important song ever heard in a movie, the part-talkie The Jazz  Singer.


Darius starts with the verse, which always surprises us, because while Blue Skies as such is famous, its intro is…huh? What is this mystery piece? But then the refrain unfolds, and the audience gets into the swing of it, especially on the second chorus, when Darius decorates the melody with some personal jazz. This Blue Skies turns out to be a great First Number, because it announces the evening’s program: good music, well sung.


Then Sean goes out onstage. He is in a dark suit with a light blue tie. I had turned up on the sporty side with a red, white, and blue tie, but the costume designer, Lisa Renee Jordan, pointed out that everyone in the show was in black, so I picked out a black-and-white number properly to join the corps. Sean’s light blue tie gives him optics control, but then he’s the host.


We’re going to talk about Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and so on in between the musical numbers, but first I’m concerned about Entering With Aplomb and trying to remember not to smile like a Halloween pumpkin. At the last minute, I decide not to smile at all, as befits a Keeper Of the Flame, but what I’m really worried about is the seating. The chairs look like Jar Jar Binks’ lawn furniture, and I’m afraid I might suffer a Schmiss and tip over. I fancy that someone in the audience will then cry out—as they do in Kabuki theatre in Japan—“I was expecting it! A gesture introduced by Shegeru Matsumo in the Fourteenth century!” Note to self: hire Kabuki plants for further show-biz engagements with esoteric chairs.


The second number offers Lora Lee Gayer in Cheek To Cheek. Now, here’s an interesting aspect in the art of staging these anthology revues: what do you do with the songs that kind of just stand there, the ones with no story in them? It recalls the famous West Side Story tale wherein Jerome Robbins complains that nothing happens in the song Maria. “What is he doing while he sings it?” Robbins demands of Stephen Sondheim, who replies something like, “He isn’t doing anything. He’s singing about this wonderful girl he just met.”


And Robbins replies, “You stage it.”


But in fact Tony doesn’t have to do anything during Maria, because in a story show like West Side Story there’s plot-and-character suspense when  a character tells us how he feels. It’s only in a revue, with its one-off, out-of-story song spots, that we ask for more of the singers than a mere stand-and-deliver approach.


Luckily, director Devanand Janki has come up with clever solutions to this problem, giving the company odd little things to do while not overshadowing the music. So Lora Lee’s Cheek To Cheek tries to get the pianist to partner her. Well, of course: “Dance with me!” is in the lyric. But Evan’s busy just now, so she tries Sean, and he isn’t moving.


I become apprehensive, as I haven’t been staged into the number—what if she asks me, too? What if she pulls on the chair and it explodes in the excitement?  But Lora Lee goes back to the pianist, and at length, upstage of the keyboard and with a Mona Lisa smile, she herself hits the tonic key to button the number, a cute touch.


For Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught In the Rain)?, Barbara Walsh of course has an umbrella, but the number’s feature is a dance break in which she calls out each step for us (“Imitation grapevine!”), which gives the spot a gleeful charm. Three titles later, when we’ve moved on to the Gershwins, Barbara is back for The Man That Got Away (by Ira with Harold Arlen), given an arresting spin as Walsh sings this sad tune sadly while Jason Gotay interpolates spoken questions to cue in each of Ira’s lines. It’s daring, because it gives us two completely different “tones,” Jason’s sympathetic yet quaintly zoned-out wonderings cutting into Barbara’s gloom. But it enlivens a number that otherwise sustains a certain relentless quality.


For Rodgers and Hart, the venturesome choice of songs favors the audience with two rarities, Hollywood Party and I’ve Got To Get Back To New York. Then comes Blue Moon, a rarity as well because we get tastes of its each of its first three versions, with different lyrics. As the singer reaches the end of Prayer’s first A, the lights black her out as Sean cries, “Cut!” This also happens with Manhattan Melodrama and the Bad In Every Man, till we reach the historic moment when MGM’s music publisher, Jack Robbins, told Rodgers and Hart that their tune was simple and beautiful but their lyrics were crossword puzzles. “Write me a moon song,” he suggested, and Lora Lee, Darius, and Amy Justman do the honors, very sweetly.


For the first-act finale, we get a production number, Isn’t It Romantic?, the most creative musical spot in all Rodgers and Hart, as the camera follows a melody from Maurice Chevalier’s tailor shop into a taxicab, onto a train and off on the road with marching soldiers, thence to a gypsy campfire thanks to a fiddler who plays it with almost demented schmalz, and at last to the enchanted Sleeping Beauty chateau where Princess Jeanette MacDonald sings it as if to summon her rescuing prince—Chevalier, of course, in this democratic fairy tale. The whole cast turns out for this, along with a real violinist, Lukas Sanchez, and Sean thinks it’s the first time that anyone has tried to stage this epic sequence. (The curious can find the entire thing on YouTube.)


During the intermission, in the green room, I ask Evan about transpositions I noticed in his personal vocal score, because for some songs he simply wrote (for example of a song published in G), “In C.” This intrigues me, as I’m a great sight-reader but I can’t transpose anything, not even You’ll Never Walk Alone, which, harmonically speaking, is the Mary Had a Little Lamb of show tunes. Years ago, for a violin-piano act in restaurants, my violinist partner had to write out a lead sheet from which I could play Happy Birthday To You when a party needed to sing at the presentation of the cake. I couldn’t even get through that ditty without a trot.


The second act sustains the vitality of the first, and I like the way Taylor Blackman, Brian Fender, and Austin Marquez’s Don’t Fence Me In (complete with little line-dancing steps) is balanced by Victoria Nassberg, Nicolette Shin, and May Yoshiota’s Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway. Two trios.


We have reached Cole Porter, obviously, and Sean asks me about how Porter adapted to Hollywood ways. I note that he carefully broke his movie work into three genres: primitive songs for the mass audience and slightly sophisticated songs for the keener public, but one song he always saved for himself. In fact, I’m thinking of his first full-fledged Hollywood musical, Born To Dance, with its Hey, Babe, Hey (a primitive title), I’ve Got You Under My Skin (a keen title), and the bizarre Love Me, Love My Pekingese.


And the latter is what the gang immediately serves up, as the Don’t Fence Me In boys in sailor caps and Jason as the captain welcome Lora Lee in Virginia Bruce’s old role, with a stuffed animal as the eponymous Cheeky. He has been hidden in a handbag bearing a folksy farm motif, and this little touch of rural peace is the very opposite of Porter, that naughty metropolitan grandee.


It’s another quirky touch in an evening dedicated to the musical, where quirkiness is the First Virtue. And what could be quirkier than the entire Munchkinland sequence from The Wizard Of Oz, the show’s finale, complete with the Wicked Witch Of the West? She doesn’t materialize, simply running in on her broom. But still. Very clever, the way the number ties in with the overture. Note to self: do this again some day.



Saturday, April 7, 2018


       My book on the musical Chicago has just come out, so I'm celebrating with a piece on Carousel, which is arguably Chicago's opposite in every way:
       Now. When Carousel played its first night, on April 19, 1945, the audience thought it knew what to expect. Like Oklahoma!, the first Rodgers and Hammerstein show, just two years earlier, Carousel was a Theatre Guild production with a period setting,  based on an old Guild property. Rouben Mamoulian directed and Agnes de Mille choreographed, as on the earlier show. And Carousel was billed, like Oklahoma!,  as neither musical comedy nor operetta but “musical play”: with the power of drama and the emotional expansion of music.

       Some of the public might have been familiar with Carousel’s source, Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, a Guild hit in 1921 with Joseph Schildkraut as the titular anti-hero, ever rebelling against authority and rules—why? because they’re there—and Eva Le Gallienne as his abused but faithful love, Julie. Schildkraut was a heartthrob, quite the exhibitionist in his tight, striped jersey, and Le Gallienne was an actress of such presence that, when she made an exit, she took everything with her, including the grand piano. They worked well together, but their characters make a terrible marriage, because the more Julie understands and forgives, the angrier Liliom gets. He knows he’s unworthy: love makes him feel guilty.

       Liliom is a strange piece, focusing on working-class folk with no ambition and little hope in a stylized realism that suddenly veers into fantasy when Liliom dies and gets a second chance on earth—after sixteen years of hellfire—to do a good deed for his fatherless daughter. He fails and returns to the afterlife, a loser in death as in life. And there the curtain falls.

       That suggests a show that would end up as the one thing a musical must never be: depressing. Yet both Puccini and Kurt Weill wanted to have a crack at it. Molnár turned them down. He turned down Rodgers and Hammerstein, too, but as a refugee from the Nazis he happened to be living in New York, and he dropped in on Oklahoma!. It was instruction in lightning; now Molnár comprehended the potential of music theatre with the poetry of good music but the realism of theatre. And Molnár said yes.

       Chicago, too, is based on a play that was seen on Broadway in the 1920s, and the musical follows it very closely. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew they had to reinvent Liliom’s final sequence, rendering it as uplifting rather than dispiriting. What they didn’t like was the setting, in Molnár’s native Budapest. Neither of the two authors had any feeling for Hungarian culture—yet the story seemed to need the exotic locale, with its odd blend of the wistful and the brutal. They thought of New Orleans for a time, then jumped north to New England in the 1870s and 1880s, so picturesque with its accents (“Always settin’ by the winder”) and cotton mills, fisherfolk and carnival, skinflints and clambake.

       They made one mistake, envisioning the afterlife as the gloomy parlor of a dour minister and his wife, which infuriated the audience at Carousel’s Boston tryout. The scene had all the small-town pettiness that New Englanders live by but hate to see revealed, and the authors rebooted it on a bare stage with the minister defrocked as the Starkeeper, still heavenly but less parochial, a dreamer rather than a judge.

       Now Carousel was ready for its New York premiere—but that first-night public wasn’t, because Carousel proved to be nothing like Oklahoma!, and its innovations began literally one minute into the running time. Virtually all musicals had overtures in those days: a fanfare, then a chain of four or five numbers, with a big finish. Rodgers always hated them, because, in the typical Broadway pit, the brass overpowered the strings, so the ballads, in which the violins carry the melody, couldn’t be heard properly. After Oklahoma!’s smash success, however, Carousel could afford a big staging, and Rodgers got twenty-two strings in an orchestra of thirty-nine, almost twice the usual size.

       Anyway, Carousel didn’t have an overture. Instead, the show began with a quirky little prelude suggesting the winding up of a carousel’s drive equipment. As the music grew louder and faster, the house lights went to black and, without warning, the curtain went up, launching the narrative before the audience was ready: on an amusement park with courting couples, the stately bourgeoisie, heroine Julie and her sidekick Carrie, and of course the carousel and its barker, Liliom, now called Billy. The entire scene was enacted in pantomime, and amid  the vignettes and sidebars the public noticed that something interesting was happening between Julie and Billy.

       Traditionally, the next scene would give Julie a Heroine’s Wanting Song and then, perhaps, a duet with Billy. But first Carrie defined Julie from her point of view, in “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” Then Carrie got the Wanting Song, in “Mister Snow.” And only then did Julie and Billy duet, in the extended musical scene built around “If I Loved You.” Yet they do not sing at the same time, emphasizing how different they are. Never before had a musical explored so much character in a single number, as these two open themselves up to each other. “Two little people, you and I,” Billy calls them—and, in a line cut in Boston, after Julie likens a passing cloud to “a lonely leaf on a big blue stream,” Billy sings, “Who cares what we dream?” It won’t be a good marriage, but it will be a love match. Blossoms are falling all around them, coming down on their own. “Jest  their time to, I reckon,” says Julie. She’s talking about herself.

       Carousel is filled with music in a way few such shows are, one reason it has always tempted opera singers; the very first “crossover” recording was a Carousel in 1955 with Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel. The centerpiece of this vitally personable score is Billy’s big scene near the end of the first act, called simply “Soliloquy,” proof that, in Carousel as not necessarily in Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein made the very term “show tune” inadequate. “Soliloquy” isn’t a tune at all, but rather a musical process that follows Billy’s thought patterns as he considers his coming fatherhood. The music jumps from one idea to another, from melody to melody, Moderato, Allegro (at “My boy Bill…”), Con Moto, confident and secure till Billy realizes that the son he’d be comfortable with might instead be a girl—too tender, too easily hurt, like Billy himself, but without a man’s ability to put on a bold front. The music almost breaks apart, then recovers for one of Rodgers’ loveliest melodies (at “My little girl…”), by which time Carousel has made a complete break with the way Rodgers and Hammerstein realized character development in Oklahoma!. That show’s cowboys and farm girls sing show tunes. Carousel is opera by other means.

       One of its most arresting novelties is its use of the musical’s Second Couple, traditionally mischief makers in the line of Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena or Puccini’s Marcello and Musetta. The First Couple tends to the romance, while the other two bicker, sing comic songs, and pass sarcastic remarks about everybody else on stage. Carrie and her Mr. Snow, however, are in Carousel to elaborate its view of social class. Carrie is a spirited girl, but Snow is a narrow-minded stuffed shirt—a bore, really. You don’t get a lot of those in musicals. He does seem to love Carrie, at least when they’re courting, but the only thing that truly excites him is his plan for a sardine cannery. Carousel’s action spans some fifteen years, long enough for the Snows to produce nine children—but he is as tiresome as ever. “Turn your eyes away, Junior!” he cries, when he and his eldest happen upon Carrie singing a naughty show tune.

       Thus,  Snow is a foil to Billy, who is robust and fascinating but unreliable. Snow, great husband material by comparison (if only on the material level), sucks the  oxygen out of everything. Comparing them, we see why Billy is a scapegrace: he‘s the revolution against all the Mr. Snows, the “big people.” Snow represents that authority and those rules, and Billy defies them because they are set up, he believes, to further the agendas of the Snows of the world, to keep the “little people” down.

       One of the key innovations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play is the powerful sense of community the form conveys, in Oklahoma!‘s frontier, Allegro’s small town, Me and Juliet’s theatre people. Billy and Snow outline for us Carousel’s social cross-section, as the former lives in a state of reckless liberty while the latter can’t wait to get bricked up in the wall of bourgeois propriety. In between them are Julie, who throws herself into the arms of destiny, and Carrie, who chooses her future more carefully. Yet who is happier in the end? There is no easy answer. Except for the daughter Billy feared to raise, Julie is alone. Carrie has plenty of company, with Snow and their nine little snowflakes. Yet that revision of Molnár’s ending, with Billy’s ghostly appearance at his daughter’s high-school event and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” wants us to feel that, somehow or other, love has triumphed, even over death.

       Much of Carousel is not just beautiful, but fun: the cue for the clambake number is a girl’s crying, “Look here, Orrin Peasely! You jest keep your hands in yer pockets if they’re so cold.” Though it originally ran only two years (to Oklahoma!’s five), it was Rodgers’ favorite of his own shows, and has become known as the richest score of all Rodgers and Hammerstein. Besides its abundant emotional impact, it is filled with musical echo texture, as a theme from one number will turn up in another. Thus, Billy borrows “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” at the start of the “If I Loved You” scene; and the girls’ “Give it to ‘em good, Carrie!” in the ramp-up to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” reappears just before “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.”

       There is as well the almost sociological nature of the music, as if the authors had interpolated folk songs—the sea chantey “Blow High, Blow Low,” the hymnlike “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the sorry wisdom of “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” which sounds like one of those popular poems credited simply to “Anonymous.” There is something timeless, terrifying, and marvelous about Carousel, another reason why it is unlike the basic and even logical Oklahoma!. The latter is about how a territorial community prepares for statehood: through compromise, as outlined in “The Farmer and the Cowman (should be friends).” But Carousel takes us into the hereafter to try to comprehend how destiny works. If this is a musical, it’s a musical on the grand scale.

       For his part, Ferenc Molnár loved it, even the new hopeful ending. Perhaps he appreciated the way it affirmed his view of “little” souls with big feelings, people like you and me, who simply don’t matter to the Mr. Snows who run the world. Who cares what we dream?


Sunday, February 25, 2018


My book on the Fosse-Kander-Ebb show has just been published, so I’m promoting it with a Q & A interview:

Q: All right, what about this format of a single book about a single musical? It’s a thing now, from Show Boat to Hamilton. I don’t mean those puff books mostly on the big pop operas, but rather the interesting, unauthorized critiques such as Jim Lovensheimer’s volume on South Pacific. And of course that show is a musical play, not a mere musical comedy.


A: There’s nothing mere about musical comedy—Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, Pal Joey, On the Town, Guys and Dolls. All classics.


Q: But is there a book in them? South Pacific at least has all that intense character interaction. And there’s the Michener novel, Mary Martin, the race thing. And that hot guy in the movie in the Seabees scenes whose dick was always pushing out of his pants. With Chicago you have just one work—


A: It’s six works: a play; two movies, silent and talkie; a musical; a movie musical; and a major revival both faithful to and different from the original play.


Q: Aren’t they all the same story, though, over and over?


A: No, because in the first movie (directed by Cecil B. DeMille, by the way, though he is not officially credited), Amos, who wanders lonely as a clod in the musical, is the hero of the piece. He’s a hunk, too. Then, in the talkie, Roxie—Chicago’s main murderess—is innocent. (SPOILER: So who dunnit? Amos.) And while the musical follows the play rather closely, there’s all that turbulent Fosse staging to explore. The way he tells a story can be more important than the story itself.


Q: Is that generally true of him?


A: To an extent. One of the most forgotten masterpieces in the musical’s history is Redhead, a Fosse-Verdon collaboration of 1959, with a spectacular staging—just a complete surprise in what it was doing, all the time. Although I was very young when I saw it, I remember it quite vividly, especially a moment in the big Dream Ballet (musicals had them then; now they have characters from Act One playing their own relatives in Act Two, which hopelessly confuses me) when Verdon flew out of the stage left wings ten feet in the air to land in two gypsys' arms. The entire house all but shouted in shock.


Q: Redhead a masterpiece? Really? Then why isn’t it revived?


A: It was a masterpiece of staging, not of composition. And it did go Tony-crazy. It won everything but Best Usher.


Q: So there’s a lot of Verdon and Fosse in your book? Fill?


A: It isn’t fill. It’s panorama. Readers want more than a palette of data. They want background, anecdotes, the color of everything. For instance, there are two great American myths associated with the Chicago plot line.


Q: Sex and snuff?


A: Chicago the city and the 1920s the era. You can’t comprehend the atmosphere Chicago dwells in unless you know what the Queen of the Midwest and that giddy decade meant to Americans when Chicago the play first appeared. The theme is lawless anarchy as the ultimate American quality, whether in Chicago gangsters or the average citizen’s defiance of Prohibition.


Q: And here I thought we were going to get fizzy stories about the Weisslers’ revival cast running around in vampire-prom mesh and Fosse the lover of women and so on. Didn’t one of the replacement Billy Flynns last less than a week? I heard that one of the Spice Girls went into the show and interpolated a Spice selection—did that happen? And isn’t it true that Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that started it all, became a loony born-again something who refused to let anyone musicalize it?


A: That’s a false tale apparently started by the man in charge of the rights to Chicago. Watkins, a member of the Disciples of Christ from birth, wasn’t loony or a born-again anything, and her beliefs had nothing to do with her feelings about Chicago. And get this—she arranged in her will for Fosse and Verdon to buy the rights to make their Chicago after all.


Q: Revisionism!


A: One thing this format—as you call it—does is clear away the misleading decorations of legend. And of course there’s lots of snark and humor in my book. But the main thing is to try to explain why Chicago, so unlike the classics—The King and I, West Side Story,  The Music Man, A Chorus Line—has turned into such a major title. The Weisslers’ version threw off countless productions internationally, and in New York it has been running for twenty years.


Q: But every musical is unlike the classics—and the classics are all unlike one another.


A: Yes, but they all believe in something, while Chicago appears to be nihilistic. That’s why it was very uncomfortably admired when it first appeared.


Q: Yet we like it now?


A: The times have greatly changed. Now people understand what Fosse was talking about—the complete lack of morality in the ruling class and the news media. Then, too, Chicago is edgy satire, and you never know how the public will react to satire. Audiences prefer spoof, parody, loving take-offs.


Q: Hasn’t the musical been satiric right from the start?


A: Musical comedy, as opposed to operetta and the like, was always sarcastic and irreverent. But there was no evening-length satire till Strike Up the Band, a look at capitalist war-mongers, in 1927. It closed out of town.


Q: Ha! George S. Kaufman said satire is what closes Saturday night.


A: In Philadelphia—and Kaufman wrote Strike up the Band’s book. It got to Broadway in 1930, though.


Q: In a gentled-down book, right?

A: That’s another false tale. I got my hands on the 1930 rehearsal script (it’s in the Library of Congress, where the Gershwins’ collection resides), so I compared it with 1927. I assure you, 1930 is just as scathing as 1927. What saved the show was star comics and an improved score.


Q: What are some other satires? Mame? It mocks the pretentious, the bigoted, the conformists.


A: Mame has no evening-long target. Further, Mame doesn’t have a satiric score, which is a key element—songs that blatantly toy with theatrical realism in, let’s say, a semi-Brechtian way. Chicago has the pastiche “vaudeville” numbers in the style of Sophie Tucker, Bert Williams, Zez Confrey, Eddie Cantor, and so on.


Q: Who’s Zez Confrey?


A: It’s in my book. Of course, not every satire has that sort of “distancing” score. Finian’s Rainbow is a satire, but its score is made of standard story-and-character numbers, with some romantic ballads. And satire doesn’t really have room for romance. Yes, Strike Up the Band has the First and Second Couples. Even The Cradle Will Rock and 1776 have romances. But Chicago doesn’t.


Q: Is that true of the Watkins original?


A: Yes—but the silent has a romance.


Q: Okay, one last question. Is Chicago a classic?


A: Barry and Fran Weissler’s accountant thinks so.



Tuesday, November 14, 2017


In the days of the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’s Scandals, and the Music Box Revues, the variety show was Big Broadway fare, associated with powerhouse productions and major performing talent. Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, the Astaires, Marilyn Miller, Eleanor Powell, and Josephine Baker were among the many who headlined in revue in the 1920s and 1930s, and only in this particular form could you take in Beatrice Lillie. She appeared in book shows now and again, yes—but her unique comedy so baffled the organization of a story-and-character show that (at least until High Spirits, near the end of her career) she had to be set free in the looser form.
Lillie was still holding forth in the 1950s, in a posthumous Ziegfeld Follies, but by then the original-cast-album was controlling the way we perceive the quality of musicals. This revealed the salient weakness of revue: it didn’t make for good home listening. A cast album is a narrative above all. It isn’t just songs: it’s an exploration of how people feel and what they do, which gives us a lot of sheer there to enjoy. The storyless revue, on the other hand, doesn't take us anywhere.
Variety revue was on the way out by then anyway, supplanted by the television versions of the form. Still, Victor had a solid hit in New Faces of 1952—in my youth, it was almost as essential in the record library of my friends’ parents as My Fair Lady—and Victor must have had high hopes for New Faces of 1956 in turn. In the end, the show eked out a faltering half-season’s run, no one bought the album, and the title itself was admitted to Purgatory and never mentioned again. 
It’s an amusing listen all the same, mainly because the cast is filled with firecrackers of the kind we’re poor in nowadays. Some producers are valid judges of talent: George Abbott. Some producers are terrible judges: Robert Whitehead. The originator and lifelong producer of the New Faces shows, Leonard Sillman, was one of the valid ones, and while the cast takes in Maggie Smith (yes, she sings), Virginia Martin (later of How To Succeed and Little Me), T. C. Jones (a drag-queen interlocutor doing Tallulah Bankhead), and Jane Connell, it also had two of the best singers in Broadway history, Inga Swenson and John Reardon. The latter is a shameless oversinger, pouring out tons of voice as if tomorrow were The Day the World Ended. He goes bizarrely Caribbean in “The White Witch of Jamaica,” which manages to be fine art and wholly camp at the same time.
The funniest number, somewhat weakened on disc as much of the humor was visual, is “Isn’t She Lovely,” a lampoon of a Ziegfeldian “bring on the girls” number complete with staircase. The ladies were in crazy costumes (one, made of what looked like oranges, was falling apart as she moved) and the Roscoe kept flatting. Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller, who wrote the number (New Faces always had anthology scores) and are known today for their collaboration with Mary Rodgers and Jay Thompson on Once Upon a Mattress, were specialists in spoofing both high and low culture—there’s one line in Mattress’ “Normandy” that almost nobody gets because you have to be familiar with The Vagabond King to place its joke. Murray Grand’s “April in Fairbanks” (“I know I’ll never leave it…alive”) is another in this line, topped by Jane Connell’s trademark high B. There’s a gay reference in it, too, very rare for the time.
The New Faces of 1956 cast album is of historical note, too, for while the LP boasted sixteen cuts on its only release, Victor had actually taken down eight more numbers, including a sketch, “The Broken Kimona,” that poked fun at the art-house cinema obsession with Japanese movies, doing an American western in Asian accents. The extra numbers turned up much later on a bootleg LP with a plain white sleeve, but my Indiana friend Matt made me a two-disc New Faces of 1956 CD with a cover using the LP art, as if Victor itself had produced it. Only two copies of this treasure exist, and it looks so authentic that I can’t show it to fellow collectors or they’ll have envy heart attacks.
Among these extra numbers is a favorite revue genre, in which a song sets up a dramatic context that is then developed through choreography. Here it’s “A Doll’s House,” a screwy guignol about an unloved little girl (Swenson) with a fabulous toy. After a confrontation with a pushy urchin, the girl retreats into her self-protective shell as Sillman’s dancers treat us to a view of life in the dollhouse.
One of my favorite theatrical footnotes concerns this show. Jimmy Sisco, one of the new faces, was a skinny devastato with apple-red hair who knew how to have a good time. Though no face could be called “new” after appearing in one of these shows, Sillman found Jimmy so irresistible a talent that he hired him a second time for the next entry in the series, in 1962—billing him as James Corbett—and even gave him a semi-nude moment in a take-off on ladies’ health spas. I solemnized the event in the picture insert of my book on the sixties musical.
Speaking of books: I’m supposed to be plugging my next one, on the musical Chicago. But it won’t be out for months, so let’s move right along to another Broadway form as retired as the variety show, the period operetta filled with opera-weight voices, la-di-da diction, and Irra Petina. Actually, Petina wasn’t in Kean, from the Dumas play (and its Sartre adaptation) on the  early-nineteenth-century English actor, and except for Alfred Drake the performers are not really familiar Broadway people. Lee Venora was a fixture on the Big Sing circuit; she was virtually America’s Tuptim. But  Joan Weldon, the Other Woman in the plot, was so little known at the time that she doesn’t even qualify as a has-been. However, both sound terrific, and Drake was such a ham that he was always in his element in shows like this, with Shakespearean input, backstage antics, and an elevated cultural atmosphere along with the costume romance.
The songwriters are Robert Wright and George Forrest, using their own tunes instead of, say, those of Henry Purcell and Arthur Bliss in the Kismet manner, and the music is dense with invention. You can play this score ten times and still discover things you’d never noticed before. Some of the numbers remind me of what Ethel Merman so doubtfully said when she first heard “Rose’s Turn”: “It’s kind of an aria, isn’t it?” There’s even recitative in Kean (and a Willow Song), as if it were the opera version of a musical, and there’s a big orchestra, too. Really, the whole thing is compelling. On the one hand you have “Sweet Danger,” restless and passionate, with a terrific climax for Drake—it’s actually the song’s reprise, which Columbia smartly tacked on to the number as it is first sung—and, on the other hand, “To Look Upon My Love,” a comic spot for Drake’s legato undercut by his valet’s clipped patter. There’s even a jazzy de-dum-de-dum in the brass at the end.
True, we have to put up with “The Fog and the Grog,” one of those forced “show-stoppers” that the cast sings with their heads thrown back and their mouths locked in Pied Piper smiles, to show you what marvelous fun you’re having. But otherwise Kean is not only great music but a fascinating story—it's that cast-album thing again, about how book shows sing the narrative to us. When, this show asks, does the star actor stop acting and just live?
I guess we’re doing vanished Broadway genres, for this one is a zany musical comedy with a complicated storyline and nothing on its mind. It was never meant to succeed big-time with a major tour, a film version, a Random House text, and plenty of interest from high-school thespians. This wasn’t a show destined to rule the world. Instead, the public would be amused on a basic level, the show’s mediocrity lifted by chance creativity—ingenious choreography, perhaps, or a funny book, or getting the show-biz know-how that makes it play like a smash.
Bravo Giovanni got none of those except the dancing, laid out by Carol Haney. Worse, the show had not just an implausible plot but an idiotically implausible one. It would seem that someone thought America’s burgeoning fast-food industry would provide a useful novelty and, presumably because the show was to be built around the opera singer Cesare Siepi, the setting was contemporary Rome, where Siepi, a restaurateur, tunneled through the earth to steal food from a franchise, which made his trattoria a sensation. What, serving fast food? In Italy?
And so on, but Bravo Giovanni did boast two fine romantic leads. Siepi was a looker with a rounded bass tone and great musicality. His sound was a bit succulent for musical comedy, but the ingénue, Michele Lee—still nineteen on opening night—supplied the lean belt we love in Broadway vocalism. Her establishing number, “I’m All I’ve Got,” is a sizzler (the CD release includes her single of it as a bonus), and her sultry ballad “Steady, Steady” should have become a standard.
Siepi and Lee had the best numbers, and everyone else, all comics, had the dumb ones, often on themes that were quite passé  by then, though the score was nominated for a Tony, losing to Oliver!. There’s even a New Dance Sensation for Maria Karnilova in “The Kangaroo,” possibly the last of a kind that was by then nearly three generations old. Actually, everything about Bravo Giovanni was old except Michele Lee, and that was the show’s drawback. True, the plot was something new. But all else was over-familiar, and the authors were not marquee names. Composer Milton Schafer wrote only one other show, Drat! The Cat!, and lyricist Ronny Graham was known more for performing and also contributing to the New Faces revues. It’s unlikely that Bravo Giovanni will ever turn up at Encores!, so the CD is one’s only chance to sample the music with a full orchestra—and the scoring, by Robert Ginzler, is imaginative. My blurb is ready: “Better than Il Divo—A Musical Affair. Fight to get tickets!”

Monday, November 21, 2016


Leave It To Me! (1938) was Cole Porter’s kind of musical, the zany tale of a small-town, middle-aged creampuff who becomes our ambassador to Russia and, homesick, keeps trying (and failing) to get fired. The show was fast, funny, and sexy. William Gaxton played a globe-trotting journalist—a favorite hero type of the day—and his recurring partner, the whining Victor Moore, played the ambassador. Sophie Tucker was Moore’s wife, bustling about our embassy in Moscow with decorators in tow. That wall goes. Put a fireplace there. Something  Victorian in that corner. Then, indicating her husband: “And rip out that monstrosity.”

     The entire show had the merrily unbelievable and slightly heartless air that Porter felt most comfortable with. He didn’t care for political or romantic musicals—he more or less despised operetta—and he didn’t worry about consistency of character. Porter wasn’t an author of musicals. He was a songwriter, a composer-lyricist who conjured up a world in which nothing is forbidden except virtue and everybody’s welcome except the innocent. A Porter show was risqué, worldly fun.

     Leave It To Me!’s script, by the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack, gave Porter the platform he needed on which to raise a score that was snappy, mournful, or sophisticated as needed. Snappy: Sophie Tucker’s establishing number, “I’m Taking the Steps To Russia,” outlined her personal foreign policy—the latest dances will soothe Soviet gloom. Mournful: Gaxton’s vis-à-vis, the exotically mononymous Tamara, sang “Get Out of Town,” a valentine in the minor key. “Why wish me harm?” Tamara cried, because love is torture. And sophisticated: Mary Martin, in her Broadway debut, sang a salute to carnal knowledge, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” atop a trunk in a Siberian railroad station. The number was so full of double meanings (“to dine on my fine finan haddie”) that Tucker had to advise Martin on how to finesse them. “Put your hand over your heart and look up at heaven, my dear,” Tucker told her. “And they’ll forgive you anything.”

     That was when Porter was a prince of Broadway. In the days before the original-cast album publicized a musical’s score as a whole, shows were judged by the number of hit tunes they threw off. Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) offered five, which was almost a record, and Porter’s other shows generally counted one or two hits each.

     Then, suddenly, Porter hit a speed bump. Starting with Something For the Boys (1943) the shows might be hits but the scores sounded like Porter on automatic pilot. Worse, some of the shows failed, and, in Hollywood, Porter’s songs for a lavish MGM musical with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, The Pirate (1948), were just plain dull. It did have a hit, “Be a Clown.” But Porter talking of circus loons wasn’t the Porter the public loved. Up and down Broadway, word was out: Porter was over.

     And then Bella Spewack approached Porter with an idea for The Taming of the Shrew as a musical. Porter thought Shakespeare too poetic for the Porter kind of show, but he had had a good relationship with Bella on Leave It To Me!, and he heard her out. There had already been two Broadway musicals based on Shakespeare. Rodgers and Hart did The Comedy of Errors as The Boys from Syracuse (1938), using the original plot, characters, and setting. Then came Swingin’ the Dream (1939), an updating of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a mixed-race cast and lots of musical jive.

     So, as Bella saw it, they couldn’t do The Taming of the Shrew straight and they couldn’t update it. What they could do was a backstager about a company putting on the Shrew. The new show’s co-producer Saint Subber said he got the idea, from having worked on a Shrew with another husband-and-wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The Lunts were constantly bickering with each other offstage, and wouldn’t that make a dandy premise for this new musical?

     However, Bella hated Subber, and not cordially, in the Broadway manner, where you want to keep open all options for future employment. She hated him, period. The premise for the new musical, Bella insisted, was Bella’s and Bella’s alone. And she gave Porter advice as good as that given to Mary Martin by Sophie Tucker: Ignore the management and trust the artists.

     If it had been anyone but Bella, Porter might have refused, but he tried out a few numbers and began to see the possibilities. Still, with the period costumes and the elevated language, didn’t the whole thing smack of…operetta? Wouldn’t Kate have to be an opera soprano? Porter liked the breed well enough as long as they stayed where they belong: in opera. In musicals, Porter preferred the men to be comics and the women to be Mary Martin or even that mysterious Tamara. It’s no accident that the performer Porter wrote the most shows for—five—was Ethel Merman, as far from an opera soprano as one could get.

     But there is this: from his very first musical after college, See America First (1916), to his last, the television fantasy Aladdin (1958), there were two Cole Porters. One was the popular Porter, always looking for a simple hook out of which to fashion these hit tunes that gave a show prestige and notability. The other Porter was classically-trained, ambitious, and ingenious, toying with his forms; bedeviling his legatos with jazzy syncopations even in ballads; constructing musical scenes suggestive of Gilbert and Sullivan; or creating two separate choral strains that would then be sung simultaneously.

     The second Porter was always afraid of alienating the public. “Polished, urbane, and adult [writing] in the musical field,” Porter noted in the mid-1930s, “is strictly a creative luxury.” Nevertheless, after Anything Goes’ smash success, Porter felt free to unveil his most ambitious score till then in Jubilee (1935), painting on a huge canvas in  twenty-two vocal scenes, trying out every one of the Porter genres from the Latin rhythm number (in “Begin the Beguine”) to the list song (in “A Picture of Me Without You”). And Jubilee had a captivating storyline of typical Porter nonsense: the members of a more or less English royal family run off with fizzy show-biz personalities. The Queen pairs off with Tarzan, the King gets professional gossip Elsa Maxwell, the Princess meets Noël Coward, and the Prince wins Ginger Rogers. (The names were changed, of course; Tarzan was called Mowgli.)

     Jubilee got a terrific set of notices—but Jubilee failed. There was just too much music, too many ideas in the lyrics, for the public to collect the score at one hearing. So, on his next job, MGM’s Born To Dance (1936), starring Eleanor Powell, Porter reverted to his popular style, and he had hits with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Easy To Love” (which had actually been written for Anything Goes).

     And now, in 1948, Porter would surely have employed his popular sound on Kiss Me, Kate, to try to overcome his slump. But something else happened. Naturally, the Spewacks plotted Kate around the typical two couples that musicals had been depending on since Mozart’s day (as in The Abduction From the Seraglio and The Magic Flute). One pair is serious; the other is silly. With the Shakespearean atmosphere arousing his artistic side, Porter saw the first couple—actor-manager Fred Graham and his ex-wife and co-star, Lilli Vanessi—as romantic. They play comedy, too, yes—but there’s a touch of operetta about them. Porter would give them ambitious numbers, with an Elizabethan air, as in his “Were Thine That Special Face,” in Porter’s beguine style, and her “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” one of the very few songs Porter composed to someone else’s words. Shakespeare’s.

     In fact, Fred and Lilli’s music got so grand that they called for what Broadway termed “legit” voices, and Broadway baritone Alfred Drake and Metropolitan Opera star Jarmila Novotna were lined up for the roles. Novotna was an opera singer Porter could delight in, a looker with a sharp sense of theatre. But she became suddenly unavailable, and Porter was forced to face the possibility of one of those…you know, sopranos. Then Patricia Morison turned up, another beauty whose creamy mezzo sound had a high extension; coincidentally, she and Drake had played together in The Two Bouquets (1938), a West End import that was one of the first “jukebox” musicals, its score made of Victorian melodies with new lyrics. Porter was thrilled with Morison. “Deck her out,” he said—his customary phrase for “Give her a contract, put her in a costume, and set her on the stage.”

     And of course the second couple—Bill and Lois, two youngsters in the Shrew company—would sing the “popular” Porter. His “Bianca” is so simplistic that one wonders if Porter was expressing his contempt for the original Bill, Harold Lang, a dancer with surprising vocal tone but a somewhat unprofessional attitude. And  Lisa  Kirk, as  Lois, got  numbers that immediately became standards, “Why Can’t You Behave?” and “Always True To You in My Fashion,” characterful and clever but irresistibly catchy. Even here, Porter couldn’t keep himself from distinguishing his art. “Behave” features a sly little doodad of a figure between the vocal lines that quotes the main strain of a different Kate number, “Another Opnin’, Another Show.” And “Fashion” gives us the educated Porter, as the title references a line from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

     Porter’s only really large composition besides Jubilee, Kiss Me, Kate counts seventeen numbers (besides reprises), many of them in a pastiche style evoking the Italy of the Shrew scenes—the ostinato drum  figure of “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily in Padua” or the tarantella that fires up “I Sing of Love.” The two Porters thus invented two completely different “musics” in Kiss Me, Kate, one for a musical comedy (in the backstage scenes) and the other for a…well, it really is a sort of operetta (in the Shrew scenes), though the lowdown and the ritzy collide with amusing dissonance in some of the songs. One instance is “Tom, Dick or Harry,” so prim and Elizabethan—there’s a touch of madrigal in it—till the last repeated phrase, one of the wicked little jests without which no Porter show was complete. Another instance is “We Open in Venice,” which, despite an accompaniment suggestive of a plucked lute, has its coarse side. Suddenly, Porter goes highbrow at the close: as the singers finish on the word “Venice!,” we hear the orchestra play the first eight notes of the tenor’s solo in the “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

     What brought all this on? Put simply, it was the “musical play,” the more or less new genre developed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. By the time Porter started work on Kate, their Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and the very experimental and unappreciated Allegro (1947) had revealed a new way of writing musicals. Leave It To Me! marked the old way: its essential elements were star performers and an enjoyable score. In the musical play, the essential element was a story made of arresting character conflict. This gave the performers parts of real bite and the score lots of emotional content. A homesick ambassador who tries to get fired isn’t arresting. But Carousel presented a belligerent hero who meets the one thing that can knock him down: love. That’s arresting.

     Porter told friends that Rodgers and Hammerstein had made life difficult for everyone writing musicals, because the public was now accustomed to the more intense drama of the musical play. And Kiss Me, Kate gave them that…in its score. It is Porter’s contribution that elevates Kate, texturing the crazy commotions of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with the waltzing gallantry of “Wunderbar,” Lilli’s spoofy coloratura in the first-act finale with the masochistic hunger of “So in Love.” As for hit tunes, the show itself was one big hit tune. Porter’s slump was over, and he was a prince of Broadway once more. It’s worth noting that when Hollywood began to concentrate on filming Broadway musicals faithfully rather than in reckless alterations, Kiss Me, Kate was one of the first so chosen. In my latest book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, I had to deal in part with what happens to stage shows when they go California. I didn’t have room for Kiss, Me Kate in the book, because the history of the American musical—on both stage and screen—has become too rich for a single volume. So I’m doing it here.

     And it is indeed one of our classics, because with Kate Porter did not renounce the fun-filled show. Rather, he gave it—to quote Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara” poem again—“madder music and stronger wine”: a Big Sing score, with variety, hunger, nuance. Love music, we might say. Observant to a fault, Porter knew all about love except, perhaps, how to be in it. He understood how Fred and Lilli could part even when they’re wild about each other, and why their broken union must be mended. For all Kiss Me, Kate’s merriment, it nurtures powerful feelings at its core. The difference between what Porter used to write and what he wrote later is that Kiss Me, Kate has a heart.


Sunday, October 30, 2016


Everyone knows it’s true: Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) has a great score but a terrible book. Except it isn’t true. It’s a factoid, a word Norman Mailer coined to mean, more or less, “a misapprehension that everyone thinks is a fact.” (The suffix oid denotes a resemblance to a thing rather than the thing itself, as in “humanoid.”) Here’s another factoid: Hitler was elected. You hear many educated people say it, but it’s totally false. Hitler did come into power legally, but he lost his election (for president of Germany). The winner of the election, incumbent President von Hindenburg, appointed Hitler Chancellor.


         Is there a difference? Yes, a vast one: it takes the support of millions to win a national election. To be appointed, all you need is the support of one person, in this case the aged and befuddled von Hindenburg, egged on by the usual power-broker jackasses like the ones we have in D. C. today.


          But I digress. The truth about On a Clear Day is that after a brilliant and very colorful first act, everything fell apart, because Lerner—as often happened when he wrote book and lyrics for an original instead of adapting a finished work—was a one-man Second Act Trouble. The Day Before Spring, Love Life, and Paint Your Wagon all start wonderfully but then, after the intermission, the plot evaporates.


          On a Clear Day’s premise is arresting: a medical man in the psychiatry phylum falls in love with his patient as she had been in a former life. Not as she is: as she was. She’s what they used to term  an “oddball”: she can make flowers grow fast, hear an incoming phone call before the ring, and even read your mind, all of which Lerner associated, for some unknown reason, with reincarnation. Still, it provisions very picturesque sequences in which the show leapt back into Regency England, a very riot of wit and couture, to compare with the drab everyday of the present-day scenes.


          Musicals have always looked for odd settings or situations to give them a unique presence, as in The Day Before Spring’s reunion celebration, at which Sally seeks to dump Buddy and reconvene with Ben to complete their love of long before. (Yes, that’s Follies, but Spring did it first, with different names: Katherine, Peter, and Alex.) Or Love Life’s history of American marriage, or Paint Your Wagon’s gold rush. A special setting gives a musical presence.


          But where do you go, in On a Clear Day, after Boy Meets pre-reincarnated Girl? As so often, Lerner started work before he knew what the show would be in toto, because Lerner was crazy. He married eight times, for instance, and though My Fair Lady earned him an uncountable fortune, he was more or less broke when he died. Too, he was weirdly unreliable. Frederick Loewe broke up their partnership in exasperation on numerous occasions, and even after getting Richard Rodgers to compose On a Clear Day, Lerner took off for Majorca or wherever it was on a day he and Rodgers had scheduled a work session. So Rodgers, who had had enough of this with Lorenz Hart (and Oscar Hammerstein was no workaholic, either), quit. Thus Burton Lane.


          I doubt even Rodgers, in his post-Sound of Music phase,  could have topped Lane’s inspired melodies. Yet On a Clear Day’s tryout played poorly, and the show did not go over in New York. The run lasted half a year, but the show was officially a bomb. Lerner tried a revision for the tour, and rewrote again for Paramount’s filming (1970), with Barbra Streisand in her third film role.


          That was tricky casting, because the show’s heroine is really two roles: one a slightly unsure modern girl not unlike the Fanny Brice Streisand had played on Broadway and the other an adventuress in Regency England. No one could rival the captivatingly bizarre Barbara Harris, On a Clear Day’s Broadway heroine, Daisy Gamble. But Streisand would suit the modern-day part and she would sing the heck out of the songs.


          Unfortunately, the rest of the cast ranged from wasted to just plain wrong. The former: Bob Newhart, so winning in his niche but otherwise very limited, and Larry Blyden in another of his thankless roles (he was sort of an unlikable Tony Randall). The latter: an absurdly young-looking Jack Nicholson in a role new to the story as Streisand’s step-brother, and cut so deeply in the editing that his participation is puzzling. And that’s just as well, because he’s deliberately making no attempt to relate to his lines or the other players. It’s as if he’s waiting for the angry 1970s to set in and give him scope.


          And then there’s Yves “The Walking Dead” Montand as the doctor. Whose idea was this? If you want somebody French, why not Louis Jourdan? He’s handsome and his English is perfect. Of course, we know why not: Jourdan had the role when the show began its tryout, and was replaced by John Cullum because, however well Jourdan got through the Gigi score, he couldn’t justify booming ballads like “Melinda” and the title song. But Montand was not up to them, either. His singing style was French fantaisiste cabaret, not Big Sing numbers fit for operetta.


          Meanwhile, the movie cut back the stage score to its modern-day numbers, leaving the flashback scenes without musical definition. Lane and Lerner wrote “Love With All the Trimmings” for Streisand to sing when she spots thrilling rake John Richardson at a banquet, but it has no Regency flavor; on stage, “Don’t Tamper With My Sister” and “Tosy and Cosh” (a madrigal for one, accompanied on harpsichord) brought us back in time along with Daisy. And the tour added a marriage-contract number (“The father of the bride must free and willingly provide…”), an ensemble piece of vivacious charm. It was all part of the show’s unique flavor, half now, half antique. The movie attempted to play now and antique without distinguishing them musically.


          Naturally, the film was a setback for Streisand, after a great Hollywood debut in Funny Girl and the much-derided but still well-attended Hello, Dolly!. True, Dolly! lost money because of an insanely reckless budget, typical of the decade that killed the movie musical as a valid genre. But everybody saw it, and as for the complaint that Streisand is too young for the part, this is simply irrelevant. It reminds me of  all the wise guys who thought “People” should be cut from Funny Girl, also for reasons that don’t matter. Bob Fosse, to have directed the show originally, was the first. He busily explained to Jule Styne why the song had to go, whereupon Styne did his own explaining. “People” belonged in Funny Girl because:


          STYNE: It’s going to be fucking Number One on the hit parade!

          But Streisand was too something or other for On a Clear Day’s  flashback scenes. Too modern, perhaps? Harris had been fine in them, because she always seemed a bit Martian, and that otherworldly air was her passport into the past. But Streisand reminds me of John Malkovich in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: I just don’t believe him in those clothes. On a Clear Day’s Regency costumes were by Cecil Beaton in an end-of-days mood; they’re a film in themselves, though that’s not necessarily a compliment. Streisand wears them well, but still she’s always now, never then. Even her Fanny Brice and Dolly! were now. Funny Girl (if not Funny Lady) does have a certain period atmosphere in part, but it doesn’t recreate the past the way, say, Shakespeare in Love does. Or even Gone with the Wind.


          I’m writing all this because my next book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, will be out in two weeks, and while the On a Clear Day film is partly what it’s about, I didn’t have room for it, so I’m doing it here. And, really, the only thing worth discussing about it is Streisand’s vocals. The  movie wasn’t as good as the show. It wasn’t even as good as its own soundtrack disc, which isolates for us the way Streisand relishes lyrics and toys with the notes.


          She opens the program with “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” which comes to us out of nowhere with the voice alone for the opening, in a slow-build-to-glory setting by Nelson Riddle, his sustained strings shimmering over the rest of the orchestra. Listening without seeing, we are spared the movie’s pointless visual of Streisand strolling through a park crammed full of banks of flowers. Meanwhile, good old Lerner makes two of the grammatical errors for which he has become famous, in a single line, “Up with which below can’t compare with.” A Lerner lyric wouldn’t  be complete without a solecism or two. (Recte: “Up which below can’t compare to,” though of course it wouldn’t suit the scan of the melody.)


          Streisand’s version of the title song has some of her own trademarks, including a little picnic of an embellishment on “clear” and long-held notes—both the penultimate one and, even more, the last. But her showpiece here is “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” her one genuine acting assignment in the score. Indeed, she speaks the first line, to get into the gloomy spirit of the situation of being two different people. Later, she complains, “And all the time, he was thinking of someone else…me.” Again, she really bites into the song’s lyrics, making a desperate meal out of “great big lack of,” with the adjective sounding like beeeg. One great difference between Streisand’s singing in movies and that of the generation that preceded her, from Bing Crosby to Betty Grable, is the way Streisand acts her way through the songs. She sees them as more script, as much character development as music.


          And yet she felt controlled by the music, by the public’s expectations. She wanted to act, and not in songs. She had always wanted to act; singing was a hobby or some such. And films like On a Clear Day, with their lack of substance, told her she was right to avoid them wherever possible. Moreover, Alan Jay Lerner did not succeed in improving his troubled show. This time, he simply cut out the second act. There isn’t even a conclusion to the love plot: Streisand just goes off somewhere, which makes Montand’s singing of “Come Back To Me” truly nugatory. Listen, Alan Jay: when the Boy sings his mating call to the Girl, she’s supposed to respond. That’s Musicals 101.


          Now let’s part company with an anecdote. James Kirkwood Jr. happened to run into Lerner somewhere, and Kirkwood told him how excited he had been, when he saw On a Clear Day on Broadway, to encounter a brand-new show with a brand-new story instead of some adaptation or revival. The intermission after Act One was wonderfully suspenseful, said Kirkwood, because he had no idea what was going to happen next.


          “I didn’t, either,” Lerner replied. “That was the problem.”