Broadway’s Three B’s By Peter Filichia
As I went to meet my friend Donald Tesione for lunch, I didn’t realize that he was just a few steps behind me and ready to catch up just before I entered the restaurant. As a result, he’d overheard me whistling “The Three Bs’,” because just before I left my apartment, I’d been listening to On Your Toes.
“Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” he said with a smile. “But did you know that those three classical composers weren’t always considered ‘The Three B’s’?”
No, I didn’t. I have little knowledge of classical music. (Where are the lyrics?!) For years, the only thing I ever knew about Beethoven is that he was a stand-in for Belmont Park in Comden and Green’s hellishly clever “It’s a Simple Little System” in Bells Are Ringing. Because of a plot twist in their libretto, I also knew that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies and not ten. But that’s all I knew about ol’ Ludwig until Andrew Lippa wrote that quite amusing “Beethoven Day” for the revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (which I adored and Donald didn’t).
“Actually,” said Donald, “when the phrase ‘The Three B’s’ was coined in the mid-nineteenth century, it referred to Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz. Later in the century it was decided that Brahms was more important, and he took Berlioz’s place.”
This was too much classical music talk for me. “And which Broadway composers would be our ‘Three B’s’?” I asked.
That took us through most of our lunch. How we wished that we could have included Burt Bacharach. But great as Promises, Promises is, he promised us no more.
Lionel Bart gave England quite a few musicals, although here we had to be satisfied with Oliver! (which was indeed satisfying) and the one-performance flop La Strada (which was not). If London musical theater enthusiasts want to include him on their list, fine, but we really can’t.
Marc Blitzstein? We toyed with him all through our appetizers, for we’re both big admirers of Juno, his adaptation of Juno and the Paycock and Regina, his opera of The Little Foxes. I also adore The Cradle Will Rock, although there Donald and I part company. Still, we kept Blitzstein on our short-list for a while.
Leslie Bricusse? We agreed that The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd is one of the great scores of the ‘60s (and beyond). But rumors have swirled around for years that Bricusse’s collaborator Anthony Newley wrote most of the music while Bricusse concentrated on the lyrics. Neither Donald nor I was in the room where it happened, but given that we have our doubts, we put Bricusse on a much longer short-list.
But three other candidates couldn’t be denied: Jerry Bock, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin.
Bock was active on Broadway only from 1955 to 1970, but made the most of his time with one Pulitzer prize winner and two Tony Awards. He and lyricist Sheldon Harnick will always be remembered for Fiddler on the Roof, once the longest-running show in Broadway history.
It overshadowed the next Bock-and-Harnick works, but they’re well worth investigating. The Apple Tree is three one-acters, starting with The Diary of Adam and Eve. Here Bock wrote a haunting lullaby for Eve to sing to a newborn, although neither she nor Adam are exactly sure of what genus and species it is. Even the insouciant (but witty) lyric “Go to Sleep, Whatever You Are” can’t undercut the beauty of the melody.
And yet, in the third act, Passionella, when Bock had to come up with a rock rave-up for a motorcycle-jacket wearing, long-haired stud, he did a perfect Bob Dylan parody that told a Monroe-like movie star that “You Are Not Real.” Has there ever been as raucous a waltz?
In The Rothschilds, Bock brilliantly differentiated between the elegance in a world of “Pleasure and Privilege” enjoyed by German Gentiles and the dour Jewish ghetto in the measures that followed. But the rise that the soon-be-be-illustrious family makes is wonderfully celebrated in the merry “Rothschild and Sons.” If a character must die, as Mayer Rothschild does midway through Act Two, at least he went out with the last great Bock melody in “In My Own Lifetime.”
We don’t have original cast albums of most of Irving Berlin’s shows, because more than two dozen pre-dated the advent of such recordings. Luckily the practice was in place for Berlin’s biggest hit: Annie Get Your Gun. However, its 1946 original cast album has been trumped by its 1966 revival cast album.
The former weighs in at fewer than thirty-eight minutes; the latter has nearly fifty-one. This gives Ethel Merman fans more to savor and a chance to marvel at how well her voice had held up in the ensuing two decades. And when you consider that two minor, non-Merman songs were dropped for the revival — and that great eleven o’clock number “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” was added (and expanded for the CD release) – there’s no contest on which is the better recording.
Miss Liberty, his 1949 musical about that Statue in the Harbor, offers a swirling waltz (“Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk”), a funny song about tourist traps (“Only for Americans”) and French joie de vivre (“Paris Wakes Up and Smiles.”) Best of all is “You Can Have Him” sung by two women who really want that man who cheated on them – or at least they used to until he broke their hearts.
Berlin used Emma Lazarus’s famous Statue of Liberty poem “The New Colossus” and turned it into “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” He thought he had another “God Bless America” on his hands, and while that fate was not in store for the song, it’s worth hearing as a successful musicalization of an existing work.
Because Annie Get Your Gun pre-dated the Tony Awards by a season, Berlin was too early for what would have been an easy Best Score win. He did, however, land one for his 1950 hit Call Me Madam – which is amazing considering that his competition was Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. Was Berlin’s Tony really a Lifetime Achievement Award for all he’d given Broadway before The Street decided to give out prizes?
Perhaps, but we can call Call Me Madam pretty delightful. People who can’t stand the brassiness of Ethel Merman will prefer the recording made with Dinah Shore and the original cast. (Merman belonged to Decca, and RCA Victor held the show’s recording rights.) Even if Shore isn’t ideal, this recording sounds more like a Broadway show and not just an album made by a singer in a studio, which taints the Merman effort.
The breadth of Berlin’s career can be encapsulated by songs he wrote to celebrate current dances. Not many were writing a waltz in 1910 (“Herman, Let’s Dance That Beautiful Waltz”) and a twist in 1962 (“The Washington Twist”). The latter was for Mr. President, sunk by a mindless and ill-conceived book. Although “The Only Dance I Know” is utterly irrelevant to the plot, it has its own junky charm. If you only know it from the LP, be apprised that the CD offers a different ride-out.
Leonard Bernstein showed brilliance right from the initial dance music in his first effort On the Town. Comden and Green liked to say that they set their lyric “Carried Away” to “You Mustn’t Kick It Around” from Pal Joey. That’s a good song, yes, as most Richard Rodgers songs are. But listen to the dynamic and unexpected melody that Bernstein brought to it.
We have to wonder if Bernstein would have taken on Wonderful Town — the musical version of My Sister Eileen — if he’d been originally offered it. He wasn’t, but when Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt’s score was found wanting and he was called in as fireman, he found the challenge of writing a score in a month too good to pass up. The results certainly don’t sound rushed, from the wonderfully dissonant opening number “Christopher Street” to the intoxicating ballad “A Little Bit in Love.”
Do people remember the Overture to Candide when they give their knee-jerk response of Gypsy as The Best Overture Ever? From the glorious opening number “The Best of All Possible Worlds” to the stirring finale “Make Our Garden Grow” (with that delicious a capella section), this is the best of all possible scores.
Many might give that distinction to West Side Story. To think that it’s been around for nearly six full decades and it still doesn’t sound dated. Now that’s a definition of “classic” if I’ve ever heard one.
Yes, Bach, Bernstein and Berlin were my choices and Donald’s too. But then I remembered Jason Robert Brown.
I’ve long considered “Just One Step” from Songs for a New World as one of the greatest character studies I’ve ever heard. What Brown came up with for Parade and his other shows warrants serious attention, too. Donald agreed wholeheartedly.
Nevertheless, despite our acknowledgement of Brown’s prolificacy and worth, we stayed loyal to the three that we’d chosen. Jason Robert Brown will just have to wait and see – and work – in order to make one of the Bach, Bernstein and Berlin trio into a Berlioz.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.