Friday, July 26, 2013


I was fresh out of college, new in New York, and oddjobbing in the arts. On one gig, I music directed a community-theatre production of Good News! in Queens, and the show's producer, a pleasant young woman named Norma, told me about a seminar in writing musicals taught by Lehman Engel at Norma's day job, Broadcast Music Incorporated. Originally a composer and later a published theorist on how musicals work but most celebrated as a superb conductor of Big Broadway, from Kurt Weill and Harold Rome to Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, Engel was well known to me. Through Norma, I auditioned for the class.

I'm sure it's more competitive now, after class alumni have given us Nine, Titanic, A Chorus LineRagtime, Little Shop of Horrors, Raisin, Avenue Q, next to normal,  both Wild Partys, and others too few to mention. But back then, composers simply played a couple of tunes and lyricists unveiled their rhymes. It helped to be male and cute, because Lehman was old-school gay, and he had an eye. Of course, he never made a move on anyone; it was strictly no-fault cruising. But he played favorites, and fortune does favor the charming.

Most interesting to me were Lehman's constant asides on the practical side of showmaking, based on his personal  experience. Here's one example: Edwin Lester's Civic Light Opera, a long-established outfit on the west coast that put on Broadway-comparable productions of shows both old and new, had asked Lehman to music direct Wonderful Town, one of his old credits. But, he said, Lester liked to take shows that worked and figure out how to make them not work, and for Wonderful Town he proposed to cut "A Quiet Girl."

True, this draggy piece is not everyone's favorite Bernstein ballad. But it's the show's one genuinely romantic number, essential in securing an emotional throughline for what is essentially a loveless satire. It serves also to amplify Ruth's character track, though of course it's sung by her vis-à-vis, Bob. The song tells us that Ruth's difficulty in enchanting men lies not in her looks or intelligence (as she believes) but rather in her directness, her lack of what we might call girlish tact. It's men who are supposed to be blunt. Women should be...uncommitted. Ruth has grown up thinking her prettier, unintellectual sister has all the power. Ruth's wrong: she has the power. That's the problem, at least for some men. So "A Quiet Girl" is a gem in the line of theatre writing, because it conveys essential information to the audience even though the one who's singing doesn't quite understand his own perception and the one he's singing about is utterly in the dark. That is, the play is telling us what the characters can't--and learning to write like that was what Lehman's class was all about. So Lehman told Edwin Lester,  No cut or no Lehman.
The way the class worked was: in the first year, we had to write a ballad for our imaginary musicalization of A Streetcar Named Desire, a charm song for The Member of the Wedding, and a comedy song for Come Back, Little Sheba. I was a composer, and my lyricist partner, Bruce Sussman, was a close friend of Stephen Sondheim. This was right in the middle of the Sondheim-Prince era, and Sondheim was the class' official god, so Bruce's access gave him bragging rights and he mentioned Sondheim often.  There was so much little night music in the air when Bruce was around that a friend of mine dubbed him "Bruce Sondheim."

Bruce dropped me as being too old-fashioned and took up with a composer I thought very gifted. They worked on an adaptation of Invitation To a March, very Sondheimesque in that Arthur Laurents wrote it and Sondheim himself composed the incidental score. But Sondheim heard their songs and told Bruce to lose the composer. I thought that a mistake, but who says no to God? Bruce ended up writing lyrics for Barry Manilow. (Full disclosure: I did, too, just once, on a song called "On the Way To the Rest of My Life." I still have Manilow's rough tape of it somewhere. It never got recorded.)

In the second year, we were supposed to start work on our own shows, performing the score number by number as it was written, then submitting to critique from the class, followed by Lehman's comments. Therein lay a problem. Obviously, some of the workshoppers were very motivated, or where did Titanic and those Wild Partys come from? But some others never seemed to contribute anything and their lack of overall musical culture was staggering. One day, Lehman thought to enrich our perspective by playing some operatic selections, and as each one began he challenged us to name the piece. I was the only one who knew any of them, and I say this not to pin a medal on myself but to decry the class' lack of sophistication, because these were all Opera 101 cuts.

The senior class members, like Maury Yeston, and the juniors, like Michael John LaChiusa, would no doubt have placed the music. But my own classmates were a largely clueless bunch. One of them had never even been to the theatre. Not that year. Ever. And one time he went to the upright to offer not a new piece but "Send in the Clowns" with his own lyrics, about a pilot lamenting an earthbound plane as "Get Off the Ground." It was so stupid you could call it spectacular, especially as he played by ear and bungled the more nuanced harmonies. But it was a slow news day, and Lehman was indulgent.

The best aspect of the workshop was the showcase, an end-of-term revue in which we got to accompany professional singers performing our own material in a theatre before an audience. One songwriting team was regarded as the class stars, though in the end they did not punch out professionally (Ron Field's term, used as in "Mary Martin punched out singing 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy'"). At the time, though, we all thought they would steal the showcase, not least because one of the singers Lehman hired for their sequence was an outstanding vocalist in the Ethel Merman-Dolores Gray line. She was also an eccentric, and known to be hard to get  hold of. I asked the composer of this duo if he had any trouble contacting her, and he said, "No trouble, man. You just let the phone ring ninety-nine times, and on the hundredth ring, she answers."

Lehman got mad at me on my first showcase. We had to give Norma our bios for the program, and to me your bio was like your underwear: you have to jazz it up to make an impression. So I claimed to have written the commercial jingles for Candy Mu and Mlle. Dainty Wipe-Me-Cleans, Norma set it into type, and Lehman had a fit. But Bruce Sondheim loved it.

"What is Candy Mu?" he asked, his arms wide to express his wonder and thrill.

"It's the epic of Candy Mu," I replied: a response but not an answer, which is the best way to treat direct questions.

Anyway, the true high point of the whole BMI Lehman Engel thing was the day that Richard Rodgers came to visit. Lehman had warned us to be ready to march up to the piano and perform our Best Song, because Rodgers--then near the end of his career, though he had two scores left to unveil, Rex and I Remember Mama--wanted to hear the state of the art as evinced by Lehman's protégés.

Rodgers was very frail and scarcely spoke at all. Still, what an honor to pound out your own accompaniment to your own (hideous) singing of "Advice From Animals," a number from your musical version of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure! Bruce Sondheim tried to waylay me with the suggestion that we render our ballad for A Streetcar Named Desire, "Stella Says." What, after you dropped me? Out of my way, has-been.

Later on, I told a friend about Rodgers' visit, and complimented the great man on taking an interest in the next generation. "Mt. Rushmore," I noted, "pays tribute."

"You dope," my friend answered. "He's scouting for his next lyricist. He's already run through three of the greatest [meaning Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim] and he doesn't know who's left."

Oh, yeah? Then it was wise of him to come to us, because Lehman's class succeeded in the most amazing way. He gave the ambitious among us work experience and audience exposure. He produced the musical's next-generation leadership cadre. He let us sing to Richard Rodgers. And that was a great day.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Sometime in the 1950s, Ethel Merman was talking show business with Russell Nype, who had played the jeune premier with her in Call Me Madam and remained a close friend long after. Looking back on a stage career that had given her a more or less unbroken string of hits; Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin standards that "belonged" to her; and the longest-running star turn in the history of the musical, over two-and-a-half years in Annie Get Your Gun with just one six-week vacation, Merman lamented her failure to crack Hollywood in a truly important way. If she had been Big, she reasoned, they would have cast her in the Annie movie.

"Russell," she asked, "what do I have to do to get hot?"

Most of the stage musical's stars failed to punch out in Hollywood. Merman's only rival in her era, Mary Martin, had been a glamor sweetheart at Paramount early on, but she didn't achieve true renown till she reinvented herself as a tomboy madcap in South Pacific. Everyone says Broadway's women stars had a camera problem: their auditorium-filling charisma banzaied the screen. But that's only part of it. The elementally eccentric personalities of the stage--the heroines especially--were too offbeat for Hollywood. The movies liked their sweethearts neat, while Broadway relished a fizzy cocktail. Elsie Janis, Adele Astaire, Louise Groody, Gertrude Lawrence, and even Marilyn Miller (to a degree) exploited a rich blend of qualities from zany to flirty. The movies' ideal heroine was Judy Garland, humorous rather than zany and less flirty than direct and lovable. And it was Garland who was cast as Annie instead of Merman, though during production the role was recast with Betty Hutton, a kind of sleeker unit of the zany model.

Ethel Merman wasn't zany or flirty, but she was eccentric. She played not sweethearts but broads, distinctly urban after the middle-American honeys the musical had been preferring. They came from Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska; Merman was a birthright New Yorker. She was brusque and fearless, and librettists wrote her I.D. into her scripts. Here's her entrance in Du Barry Was a Lady, as nightclub queen May Daly. The lovestruck Bert Lahr has directed the chorus to shower Merman with roses when she appears:

           GIRLS: Here she comes!
                        (Merman enters, girls throw roses)
           AUDIENCE: (clapping, murmurs of welcome, thrilled mooing)
           MERMAN: (holds pose, waits for applause to die down from 7 to 3, then:) What
                         the hell is this?

Never did Marilyn Miller and her kind make the scene so belligerently; but that's Ethel. She also had the odd habit of freezing her opening-night performance for the run of a show. Earlier, the presentation of musical comedy accommodated bits of improvisation from night to night, and the star-comic vehicles were outright free-for-alls: it was live theatre, and audiences were used to--even expected--some goofing around. Then, in the 1930s, Merman's first decade on Broadway, directors like Hassard Short began to impose a sense of discipline on the ensemble, and stage managers policed the stage, insisting on identical repetitions.

Twenties operetta contributed to this new consistency, this (we might say) decorum of presentation, because operetta, the forerunner of the "musical play" (e.g., Oklahoma!, Fanny, West Side Story), treated its characters to more sociological narratives than musical comedy did. Class, politics, and even race played roles. Musical comedy was "The Varsity Drag." Operetta was "Your Land and My Land (will be our land one day)," a Civil War anthem on the promise of national brotherhood. And along with these weighty concerns came a need to tame the musical's disorderly side.

Merman fit right into that practice, but all the same her performing style was governed by a quixotic vivacity that had an extemporized feel. No musical star was more professional in sustaining a precision of execution yet more personal in drawing an audience into the fun she was having. She really commanded the stage. What other star had song genres all her own--the high-energy establishing number ("The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," "[Gee, but] It's Good To Be Here"), the saucy set piece ("Katie Went To Haiti," "A Lady Needs a Change"), the Cole Porter torch song with a Latin beat ("He's a Right Guy")? In Panama Hattie, Merman's torch number, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," ends with a coda stripping the glass of its festive décor: "Leave out the cherry, leave out the orange..." On her Decca album of four Panama Hattie cuts, Merman sang the coda straight. But there is a bootleg of a live performance that seems to have been taken down right in the theatre. (You hear the audience at some distance from the mike, whereas on a radio check they would be prominent.) And here Merman deliberately flats the note on each "Leave," getting a laugh--and this is musical comedy in its essence, keeping the fun in trim even at a sentimental moment. That is really why they called it "musical comedy" for so long. The rise of the musical play forced a change in nomenclature to the unadorned "musical": because they weren't going to be quite so zany any more. Carousel is never zany, and most recent musical plays aren't even funny. Interestingly, when Merman did her musical play, Gypsy, she got more laughs than any Madame Rose since (as another bootleg proves). Her career really lasted through the evolution of the sheer-fun musical into the musical with subject matter: from Good News!, say, to Company.

So now it's time for The Classic Ethel Merman Story, which brings us to her famous brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine, when she was in her fifties. How she ever fell in love with that urban moose is a mystery, but those who knew her say she was utterly smitten--till the honeymoon, when all joy fled more or less overnight. The pair stayed together for a few weeks more, then split. And if this tale be true, it would have taken place in Beverly Hills in July of 1964. Keep in mind that Merman, though neither cultured nor sophisticated, was sharp and fast: intelligent in her own way.

In most versions of the story, Merman returns to the house after taping a television show. It went well, and after a glance at her happy countenance, Borgnine immediately starts snarling:

                  BORGNINE: What are you so pleased about?
                  MERMAN: Well, they just loved my thirty-five-year-old voice, and my
                               thirty-five-year-old face, and my thirty-five-year-old figure.
                  BORGNINE: And what about your sixty-five-year-old cunt?
                  MERMAN: Nobody mentioned you at all.