Friday, November 4, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Are You Sure?" (on Tammy Grimes)

are you sure?
by Douglas Messerli

The great performer Tammy Grimes, who died the other day at the age of 82, is known best for her energetic performance in Meredith Willson’s popular Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and a later performance in Noel Coward’s musical version of High Spirits      
      She was wonderful in both of those, and I recall her singing, those wonderful dark, husky barks, in my childhood listening of the Willson musical, the original album of which I still own, but can longer hear since our old stereo system has broken down—as have so many of our long-used condominium appliances and kitchen cabinets.
        I listened to a great many of those songs again the other day on U-Tube and other on-line sources, enjoying them, particularly Belly Up to the Bar Boys and I Ain’t Down Yet, and even rediscovering the quite beautiful Are You Sure?—a piece I’d completely forgotten from the original—that was a sort of religious revival piece that certainly spoke to this volume’s concerns about “how to believe.” Molly insists that those who have thought God has dismissed them, simply don’t comprehend how he might have dismissed their empty prayers.

       I won’t discuss, at length, the differences between Grimes and the motion picture depiction of her character by Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds was certainly right in declaring this was her picture, although the exuberance in which she plays the “unsinkable” figure loses all the dark and more disturbing sexual innuendos of Grimes far deeper acting. I’m not sure Grimes might have translated as easily as Reynolds to the wide-screen, although it might have been wonderful to hear that smoky, bar-infused voice on film instead of Reynolds pure, shrill, yet merry, implorations.

      I also listened to several other of Grimes singing, including her remarkable jazz rendition of Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable to Lunch Today), evidently never released [on the same unauthorized disk was another memorable piece by theater stalwart Nancy Walker]—the Cole Porter standard of 1934—Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady, and even Randy Newman’s I Can’t Ever Remember Loving You, which made me realize that, although she was clearly also a remarkable actress, she should have made much more a career as a singer; although she did perform at the Persian Room in at the Plaza Hotel, she might have been perceived as the much more remarkable singer had she had stints in her day at the Carlyle and other such venues. As great an actress and Broadway baby she was, which she quite beautifully reveals in her song You Better Love Me from High Spirits, her throaty, cigarette-infused torch songs reveal her true talent.

       If Willson’s raucous rags-to-riches musical gained her international attention, it was her subtle comprehension of musical standards that revealed her true talents, which I wish might have been better revealed. Yes, Tammy Grimes still had a remarkable career—with dozens of movie appearances, a short-lived television feature, and at least 14 Broadway appearances, two of them awarding her a Tony. You can’t dismiss that kind of record!
      Yet…I keep feeling only if. As one of my Facebook friends reported, she was a silent talent, a statement to which I replied, “Well, I would hardly choose to call Tammy Grimes ‘silent.’” Yet, as he explained, what he meant is that she was basically unknown and unrecognized. How sad to think that—and how unnecessary—given her truly immense talents.


Los Angeles, November 4, 2016

Reprinted from US Theater, Opera, and Performance (November 2016).


Here are a few of the songs I listened to:


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