Happy Birthday, Charles Strouse!
by Peter Filichia
Musical theater enthusiasts were saddened to hear that composer Charles Strouse was hospitalized a few weeks ago. But the worst seems to be over, and we all can celebrate the 82nd birthday he marked on Monday, June 7.
Few people have done as much to get kids interested in musicals as Strouse. In 1960, Bye Bye Birdie brought Broadway awareness to Baby Boomers. In 1977, Annie did the same for the subsequent generation. Both shows are still among the most performed titles in the stock and amateur market. What’s more, neither Birdie nor Annie’s cast album has ever been out-of-print for a tenth-of-a-second.
Birdie, however, was originally a big risk. Theatergoing in those days was strictly an adult proposition, so things looked bad for a musical about teens who were crazy-in-love with Conrad Birdie (read: Elvis Presley — although the name came from Conway Twitty).
To make matters worse, Strouse and his equally inexperienced lyricist Lee Adams and bookwriter Michael Stewart opened the newspapers one day and read that Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were writing a musical about the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon. They all figured that with those Broadway pros concentrating on the same subject, they were sunk. And while the other show – Do Re Mi – had a nice run, their Bye Bye Birdie became be the perennial.
One reason: This musical that has The Ed Sullivan Show as part of its plot was smart enough to use Sullivan’s formula for success, which was to include something to please every audience. So while the teens could follow Hugo and Kim, whose going steady is threatened by Birdie, the adults could concentrate on the on-again, off-again romance between Albert and Rosie – not to mention their strife with an interfering mother.
Columbia record guru Goddard Lieberson believed that introductory dialogue shouldn’t be a part of a recording, for people would tire of it after a few listens. And yet, notice that before Conrad’s “Honestly Sincere,” Lieberson included a Sweet Apple, Ohio, teen’s gushing, “Speak to us, o beautiful one! Tell us how you make that glorious sound that even now in anticipation of it has reduced me to a snarling raging panting jungle beast!” One could suspect he did it because the song that followed was sheer ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and that longtime Columbia Masterworks listeners needed an explanation of why they were listening to such a song.
Onto Strouse’s other smash: Anyone who’s had a daughter, granddaughter, or niece in the last three decades has probably run into Annie, whether it’s because he’s taken that girl to a Broadway, regional, stock or amateur production – or because he’s had to attend a production in which a lass he knew was on stage performing.
Although the show seems as if it’s always been with us, one must remember or realize what a miracle it was in 1977. Audiences went in expecting a comic strip spoof, and suddenly found themselves so emotionally involved with a little girl who would not be deterred from finding her parents. Bookwriter Thomas Meehan also found the perfect tone in telling of a previously aloof rich man who let down his guard and came alive because of her.
Strouse has a marvelously bouncy way with a tune, and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” is one of his best. But the anthem “Tomorrow” with its powerful Martin Charnin lyric really caught fire with audiences – especially thanks to Andrea McArdle’s galvanic rendition. How many girls have played Annie over the years? As a child Annie’s age might guess, a bazilliongillion? But McArdle was the first one who had to get it right for a Broadway corps of critics, and she certainly did.
Fine; you know all about those two musicals. But how much do you know about three other Strouse shows that didn’t become household names, although they all had scores worth hearing?
In 1962, Strouse penned the music to All-American, about a European academic (Ray Bolger) who comes to America to teach at a football-crazy college; there his mathematical theories help the faltering team on the gridiron. With lyrics by Adams and a book by no less than Mel Brooks, hopes were high. But while the show was floundering during its Philadelphia tryout, Brooks felt the project was so star-crossed that he wondered if a producer would have an easier time if he purposely set out to write a flop. Thus, All-American spurred The Producers.
All-American’s cast album certainly doesn’t play as a flop. “Melt Us” is one of the best rags Strouse would write until Rags in 1986. (More on that musical later.) “What a Country!” was so stirring that Amtrak adopted it as its theme song. The jocks got a funny song in “Physical Fitness,” while young love was celebrated in “I’ve Just Seen Her.”
Even those who can’t tell the difference between The Man Who Came to Dinner from The Girl Who Came to Supper know the song that Strouse and Adams gave to the older lovers: “Once upon a Time.” It’s one of Strouse’s most beautiful songs, and it remained popular long after the show finished a mere 10-week run. As Strouse likes to say, “Tony Bennett’s recording of it sold millions upon millions of records – but that’s because it was on the other side of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’” Perhaps, but we’ll never know how many people bought the disc for “Once upon a Time.”
It’s a Bird … I t’s a Plane … It’s Superman! only lasted four months in 1966, but there are plenty of toe-tappers in the score (and deft Lee Adams lyrics). The suave “Doing Good” for Superman and the plaintive “It’s Superman” by a forlorn Lois Lane set up their story very well. There are some razz-ma-tazz songs for the villains, and some rock-infused numbers that suggest Metropolis was a pretty swinging place in the mid-‘60s.
There’s fun, too, in hearing the show’s most famous song – “You’ve Got Possibilities” – not only in the just-starting-out Linda Lavin’s solid rendition, but also in a demo where there are slightly different lyrics. It’s one of four bonus tracks.
Speaking of bonus tracks, one somewhat exists on Rags, the ambitious 1986 musical that Strouse wrote with lyricist Stephen Schwartz and bookwriter Joseph Stein. It’s an overture that wasn’t in place when Rags played at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Says Strouse, “We put it in when we did the recording a few years later. Plenty of people have since told me how much they like it. Now I’m sorry we didn’t have it for the show.”
While Strouse is best-known for up-tempo songs, in Rags he was writing about the immigrant experience, and thus delivered a more serious score. “Blame It on the Summer Night’ is one of Broadway’s most beautiful — and most sexy — melodies. “Children of the Wind” reminds us how much we owe our great-grandparents for making a journey to a land that didn’t want them and certainly didn’t put out a welcome mat.
Thus the title song of Rags must be a genuine rant. It bears little resemblance to the more tuneful title songs Strouse provided for Applause, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, the Bye Bye Birdie film and A Broadway Musical.
Don’t know the last one? You’re pardoned; the musical only ran one performance, on Dec. 21, 1978, and didn’t get a cast album. The show told about the joys and tribulations of getting a show on and risking failure. The bouncy melody ended with a nifty Adams lyric that summed up every great Broadway musical: “But when it works, forget the jerks, who told you it couldn’t go, for there’s nothin’ like a Broadway show.”
And there isn’t – at least not when Charles Strouse is writing one.
Peter Filichia also writes a column every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia