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.”