Saturday, March 24, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" from My Favorite Theater Songs


“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”

Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Ella Fitzgerald, 1956
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Sarah Vaughn, 1956
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Rita Hayworth (movie version), 1957
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Frank Sinatra, 1957
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: (on piano) Joanne Brakeen
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Doris Day
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Julie London
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Linda Ronstadt
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Patti Lapone
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Performer: Eliza Johnson, 2015

This lovely Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers song—memorable more for its lyrics, I’d argue, than for its music—has some of the racist lyrics since “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” is only one the great ballads of their musical Pal Joey, and I might just as easily chosen to include “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” or “Zip.” But “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is its title promises, a sliding back into love that confuses its singer immensely in the tradition of John Latouche’s and Vernon Duke’s “Taking a Chance on Love.” And perhaps it’s coincidence that both lyricists, Hart and Latouche were gay men. Would a heterosexual man even imagine lyrics such as these for a female singer?:

Seen a lot
I mean I lot
But now I'm like sweet seventeen a lot
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
I'll sing to him
Each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
When he talks he is seeking
Words to get off his chest.
Horizontally speaking
He's at his very best.
Vexed again
Perplexed again 
Thank God I can't be over-sexed again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

       I believe only Ella Fitzgerald (my favorite rendition, although Sarah Vaughn comes in as close second) and Patti Lapone sing the full lyrics, and perhaps only they might get away with it, with their sassy “I don’t care” attitudes.
     
     Most of the recorded songs available (the original Broadway version has been banned from UTube by the copyright owners, Warner and Chappell) are sanitized versions, with the later lyrics (above) stripped from the piece. Even Frank Sinatra (who played Joey in the film version) attempted a version of it; but it’s in these lines that Hart is at his best, “worshiping the trousers that cling to him” and stating boldly that his lover’s best position is a horizontal one.
      Fortunately playwright Alan Bennett gave back the full song to a young gay man in his work, The History Boys, redeeming Hart’s longing lyrics (Rodgers then-partner, whom, apparently, he did not treat so very well).

Los Angeles, March 24, 2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Rodgers' and Hammerstein's song from South Pacific, "Some Enchanted Evening," part of My Favorite Musical Theater Songs


“Some Enchanted Evening”

Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Ezio Pinza, 1949 (Original cast recording)
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Frank Sinatra, 1949
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Perry Como
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Giorgio Tozzi (sung by Rossano Brazzi) and Mitzi Gaynor, (film version) 1958
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jane Olivor, 1979
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Barbra Streisand
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my0wluaE_io
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Rossano Brazzi, late 1980s
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara, 2008
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Placido Domingo, 2011
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Michael Feinstein, 2014
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jackie Evancho

I started this morning feeling, as Charles Bernstein and I have often expressed our reactions to Rodgers and Hammerstein works, a bit surgery. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza are after all the very definition of those words, despite their incredible talents. And they were the original creators of the musical versions of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s memorable song “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song I knew I must include in this short anthology. It is a major song in the American musical song book, as musicologists such as Michael Feinstein have described it. And, of course, its soaring and darker turns make that song one of the best of all musical theater songs.
      
     The problem is, as I perceive it, is that the original and movie version determined to use great operatic voices to give the role more credence. Ezio Pinza, was in fact, a kind of marvel, his strong baritone/bass voice rumbling us into belief in the character, and in the movie version Rossano Brazzi (pretending to be the voice of the handsome Giorgio Tozzi) convinced us of the magical love that the character finds in encountering his would-be Arkansas “hick.”
      But, ultimately, the soaring, swirling and falling musical operatic voices, which also included Paul Robeson, Placido Domingo, and other operatic singers are possibly not the best expressions of Rodgers’ musical compositions. The women performers, such as Barbra Streisand, Jane Olivor, and Jackie Evancho, really do the song more justice, and tear on the heart. Gay singer Michael Feinstein, in his cabaret style, does well by it—although, once more, like my criticism of David Bowie’s version of Moon of Alabama, I wish he had been able to change the “she” to “he” in order to more truly be honest to the somewhat “gay-laced” lyrics, all about meeting a stranger in a crowded bar and falling immediately in love. Hammerstein was probably one of the most straight-laced lyricists who ever composed for American musical theater, but he evidently admired his gay student, Stephen Sondheim, and, he became Rodgers’ lyricist after the death of the very gay lyricist-partner with Rodgers, Lorenz Hart.
      South Pacific, as I have written in these volumes before, is heavily infused with a gay sensibility; it is, after all, a world where young, sexually desirous men were completely isolated from women in a place of utter sensuality. But I never before realized how deeply Hammerstein had embedded that world into the gay possibilities until I thought deeply about this very straight love song. It might almost be spoken of as a gay anthem to the old-time gay bars, where suddenly you meet someone and, hopefully/possibly, fall in love:

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons
Wise men never try.

    Of course, love is always like that; but isn’t this what transgressive love is all about? An “enchanted evening” even seems to be a magical carpet of a gay love affair, not a heterosexual romance, particularly given the fact that the romancer already has two children. No wonder Nellie Forbush is all aghast! She’s an American bigot not at all ready to meet a romancer of the type of the Frenchman, Emile De Becque. But it’s a let’s pretend world, much like Hammerstein’s early Show Boat and his later Rodgers’ collaboration, Carousel, deeply involved with imaginary relationships. If you can just move beyond the sugar, there’s something deeply destructive about these heterosexual love songs. They’re all pretense. “Maybe,” they say, “perhaps,” we might fall in love. I think I might even be able to get you a “surrey with the fringe on top.”
     And that beautiful little girl in the photo above, one of De Becque's children, is our friend Candance Lee, who also performed as one of Yul Brynner's endless children in The King and I

Los Angeles, March 11, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2018).


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs


“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”
Composer: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Ethel Merman
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Rosalind Russell, 1962
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Shirley Bassey, 1965
Composer: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Angela Lansbury, 1989
Composrs: Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Tyne Daley, 1989
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Bette Midler, 1993
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Bernadette Peters, 2003
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Ruthie Hensall
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Patti Lapone, 2008

Composer Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, I must admit, is not at all my favorite musical, the fact of which I  have loudly expressed over the years despite my having seen the film version, Angela Lansbury and Patti Lapone on stage, and the TV production with Better Midler.
     Yet I love Styne and his compositions, and both Howard and I know, personally, his lovely granddaughter, Caroline Styne, who opened, with Suzanne Goin, the popular West Hollywood venue, Luques. And I can never  quite put down Gypsy, listening to its songs again and again.
     
     Part of the problem with the musical is that the most brilliant song, “Rose’s Turn,” is an almost impossible piece to perform, and is totally impossible for the audience to take home as a “best song,” although it is clearly one of the most consummate musical performances of the theater; Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lapone have all remarkably attempted it, but it still is not a hummable, take-home song. Memorable, yes, but not something except the most remarkable of singers might even tackle; it’s truly not hummable, not what I’ve ever demanded of any song included here, but still not one of my most memorable experiences: it’s a painful expression of life lost and talent ignored, and even the singer diminishes it with her “could have / would have” comment. She might have been great, but she wasn’t, and she knows it. And the song truly exposes those problems.
     Once again, this musical is filled with lovely and memorable tunes: “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” “Little Lamb,” and many, many more. And all of them make you want to cry.
     But there is only one song that expresses the fierce determination of the central character, Rose, who controls her children so severely that both must eventually escape her handling of them. That song, so very forcefully sung in the original production by Ethel Merman, establishes not only her previous hold of her daughter, Baby June (June Havoc) but her attempt to hold close her other daughter, Louise (the later Gypsy Rose Lee). Merman sings it so utterly strong that you know she will most certainly prevail, and her poor daughter will simply have to endure it. Well, that’s the plot.
    Yet others such as Angela Lansbury, and, particularly, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters sang it much more subtly and ironically. Although the song never lost its powerful demands of the future, Midler and Peters, particularly, were able to express the utterly insane demands in which everything is turning up “daffodils,” “Santa Claus,” etc, without actually mocking those same simplistic tropes. We know that they are utterly impossible requirements for the very untalented Louise, but we also recognize the powerful demands or her desperate mother, desperate not only for her daughter to achieve her talent, but to represent herself (best expressed in “Rose’s Turn”) her own mother’s would-be achievements. It is perhaps one of the most painful songs ever sung, a ballad to a future that is totally impossible to achieve, despite the frenetic insistence of a truly mad mother. If the child does ever accomplish anything—and, obviously Gypsy Rose Lee did—we already know it will be nothing of the kind that the mother demands. And the sad truth, when this child becomes a strip-tease artist, tells us about how Rose never could quite comprehend her transformation into the lowest levels of American culture, even though Gypsy Rose Lee struggled throughout her life to return to redemption through her pretense of sexual sins. It was a pretense that is so sad that, today, we can hardly assimilate it.
    Gypsy is a harsh and hard musical which I could never quite embrace. But its aspirations, its desires are at the heart of the American experience, which, of course, is the problem of the American experience. Yet, her emblem to possibility, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is something no one can truly ignore.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2018