It Says Here in This Book
Last week I pointed out that August doesn’t have any major holidays, but it does have some minor ones. Here’s hoping that my reminding you of Sisters’ Day — the first Sunday of the month – gave you and your sister(s) a great 4th of August.
I suggested that those with or without such siblings should celebrate by spending the day playing many a show song about sisters. Now I’ll recommend that you start lining up songs to hear on August 9th – the mini-holiday officially known as Book Lover’s Day.
One book lover of note is Rod in Avenue Q. When we first meet him, he muses, “An afternoon alone with my favorite book The Broadway Musicals of the 1940s.” This is presumably Ethan Mordden’s Beautiful Mornin’, a terrific tome – and not merely because it expertly comments on most every musical from that decade. It concludes with a chapter on “The Cast Album,” telling us of vinyl’s roots and progress as one of America’s most cherished musical souvenirs. Let’s put it this way: in Follies, when Phyllis mentions that Ben has “shelves of the world’s best books,” I’m sure that Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s (to use Mordden’s actual subtitle) is right up there. It deserves to have the success that Belle Poitrine predicted for her own book Little Me – that it would be published “in Esperanto, Japanese and Braille.”
Listen carefully to this Avenue Q cut, and you’ll even hear Rod mention High Button Shoes and Pal Joey. If Rod is at all like the rest of us, reading about such musicals will send him to the cast albums to augment the experience. Alas, the original cast album of High Button Shoes isn’t currently available, but at least he (and we) can hear “I Still Get Jealous” and “On a Sunday by the Sea” in the 1989 Tony-winning Jerome Robbins’ Broadway; the eponymous musical theater legend choreographed High Button Shoes.
In the early ‘50s, when Columbia executive Goddard Lieberson and maestro Lehman Engel decided to do studio recordings of shows that pre-dated the cast album era, Pal Joey was high on their list. This turned out to be one of the most significant recordings ever made, for it spurred Jule Styne to get the Rodgers and Hart groundbreaker back to Broadway, where it became the longest-running revival of all time.
If Rod can only bear to tear himself away from the book long enough to hear a song or two from Pal Joey, I’d first recommend “I Could Write a Book.” That it’s Book Lover’s Day isn’t the sole reason; it’s easily one of Rodgers and Hart’s best songs. But I’d implore Rod not to overlook “Take Him.” Richard Rodgers’ lovely melody is nicely undercut by Lorenz Hart’s cynical lyric. Vera and Linda each decide that the unfaithful Joey is not the man of anyone’s dreams; they’ve had enough and they are moving on (and not a moment too soon).
Pal Joey was one of the first musicals of the ‘40s, while Miss Liberty was one of the last. For that musical, Irving Berlin wrote a song that reminds us of “Take Him.” It’s “You Can Have Him,” in which Maisie and Monique make the same decision about the equally unfaithful Horace. Although Pal Joey takes place fifty-five years after Miss Liberty, not much had changed in male-female relationships.
After Rod reads Mordden’s excellent analysis of the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow, he should make time for “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Few if any other show songs have ever been as hellishly clever as the lyric E.Y. Harburg devised for this one: “When I can’t fondle the hand that I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand,” sings Og the leprechaun (who’s becoming more like Pal Joey and Horace than he would have thought).
Listening to Finian’s “Necessity” is a necessity in itself. Don’t you love songs that have three words that look nothing like each other on the page, but rhyme perfectly when sung? It happens when a trio declares “I’d like to play some tennis, or take a trip to Venice. But sister, here’s the menace” – all set to a memorable Burton Lane melody.
A little fewer than two years later, Cole Porter had his biggest hit with Kiss Me, Kate, in which he did his own version of “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Porter called his “Always True to You in My Fashion,” which was odd, given that those seven words never appear consecutively anywhere in the song. The logical title would have been “Always True to You, Darlin’, in My Fashion,” for that phrase is actually stated no fewer than ten times during the song – not including the one time that the phrase is delivered in French.
Porter gave the song to an actress named Lois, who proved that one needn’t be a man to be sexually adventurous. While Joey, Horace and Og seemed ruled by their hormones, Lois was willing to trade sexual favors for financial ones. Porter gave her wordplay worthy of Harburg’s previous achievement: “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat. If the Harris pat means a Paris hat,” Lois will play ball.
And Rod should give a listen to compare and contrast the Lane-Harburg song with Porter one. What’s interesting is that Lane chose an elegant waltz to express infidelity while Porter went for a razz-ma-tazz traditional Broadway approach.
Lois apparently agrees with the first song that Liza Elliott sings in the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark – that we’d better make the most of life, because we only have “One Life to Live.” This exemplary Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin score is far more famous for Danny Kaye’s tour-de-force “Tschaikowsky” and Gertrude Lawrence’s pièce de résistance that trumped it: “The Saga of Jenny.” But Rod needs to hear “One Life to Live,” for as we see when his roommate Nicky sings “If You Were Gay,” Rod is not making the most of his one life.
When Rod gets to Mordden’s evaluation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its heroine Lorelei Lee, he might prefer Carol Channing’s more demure 1949 rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to the more frank 2012 Megan Hilty cut. The former doesn’t contain as many, as the expression goes, “adult language and situations” as the latter. The rest of us, however, may be glad to savor the unexpurgated version that showed what was really on expert lyricist Leo Robin’s mind.
Rod shouldn’t overlook “Bye Bye Baby,” either, be it the version sung by Channing or Hilty. In each, Lorelei promises to read “that book by Mr. Gideon.” No question about it: it’s a good book, and has been called such many, many times. Many a book lover has even committed it to memory.
What else? The Broadway musicals of the 1940s also produced Brigadoon, By Jupiter, Magdalena, On the Town, Regina, Song of Norway and Street Scene. I’d respectively and respectfully send Rod to “Down on MacConnachy Square,” “Jupiter Forbid,” “Food for Thought,” “Some Other Time,” “Lionnet,” “Freddy and His Fiddle” and “Remember That I Care.”
Too obscure? If Rod is more comfortable with hit songs, 1940s’ Broadway musicals had no dearth of those. Annie Get Your Gun alone yielded no fewer than seven hits, rivaled by those three mammoth Rodgers and Hammerstein smashes – Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific. For my money, Carousel contains the greatest achievement ever accomplished in musical theater: “Soliloquy.” ‘Nuff said.
There’s another R&H show Rod should get to know. Of course when he started reading the book – meaning when Avenue Q opened in 2003 — his only option for Allegro was the quite truncated 1947 original cast album. Thank the Lord that a complete version has since been recorded in glorious sound, for it makes clear the immense and previously underrated worth of that third Rodgers and Hammerstein score. However, the two-disc set will take an inordinate amount of time, so perhaps Rod should wait to finish the book before savoring this score that’s brisk, lively, merry and bright.
But that, of course, was the policy of the Broadway musicals of the 1940s.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.