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
—“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. Japan
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.