Sunday, December 31, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Chain of Love" (from Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's The Glass Harp, from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs)

“Chain of Love”

Composers. Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie

Performers: entire cast and Barbara Cook
Complete original cast recording, 1971
Composers: Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie
Performers: Cast and Barbara Cook
Stolen songs from the last performance of the musical, 1971
Composers: Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie
Performer: Barbara Cook
Composers: Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie
Performer: Susan Watson, 1979
Composers: Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie
Performer: Haley Jane

Image result for Claibe RichardsonIt’s totally strange that the wonderful Broadway musical, The Glass Harp, performed at the Martin Beck Theater of only 7 performances in 1971, should have become one of the most lost musicals ever. It’s cast, after all, consisted of the remarkable Barbara Cook (after her The Music Man, Candide and other major Broadway performances), and included Carol Brice, Karen Morrow and numerous others, was based on Truman Capote’s wonderful tale, which was later made into a movie. The music by Claibe Richardson, a rather remarkable composer who died in 2013, and the wonderful American poet and librettist, highly influenced by his lover of several years, John La Touche, who produced several wonderful songs such as “Dropsy Cure Weather” and the driving percussionist piece “Yellow Drum.” In this case I’ve included the entire original Broadway cast recording just to give a sense of the remarkable songs in this work.
     The great stand-out, however, is “Chain of Love,” which isn’t even titled that in the list of original songs in the current listings. But anyone who has sung it, including Cook and Susan Watson has titled it that in their wonderful appearances.
     Of course, Cook sings it best, but it has yet to be discovered by hundreds of others who might turn its beautiful lyrics and music into something else. This is a musical just waiting to be rediscovered. With lyrics that Elmslie wonderfully created, how can you not fall in love with Dolly Talbo, even if she has never herself discovered it for herself:

If love is a chain of love
As nature is a chain of love
With link after link after link
Then I’ve always been in love I think.

Yet, I’ve always been in love I guess.

The sad after thoughts of “I think,” and “I guess” represent Dolly’s impossible comprehension of what she has been missing, even though she truly realizes it in simply the “links” of her relationships with other human beings. And her final determination to take to the trees in protest for what has been denied her, is so brilliantly expressed her new comprehension that love something more that she has quite experienced, represents what this performance is all about. Why the critics so abused this lovely, if slight, musical is incomprehensible. This musical should be celebrated, not shunned and even less forgotten.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2017

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Losing My Mind" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies (from "My Favorite Musical Theater Songs")

“Losing My Mind”
by Douglas Messerli

Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Dorothy Collins (original Broadway recording), 1971
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Barbara Cook (Follies in Concert version), 1985
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Dorothy Loudon, medley with another Sondheim song
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Liza Minnelli, 1989
Performer: Tim Curry, 1997
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Marin Mazzie (Sondheim’s 80 birthday celebration), 2010
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Glenn Close (for Barbara Cook’s Kennedy Awards Honor), 2011
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Bernadette Peters, 2014
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Jeremy Jordan
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Barbra Streisand, 2016
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Michael Ball

Image result for Losing My Mind Follies Barbara CookI’ve been putting off the review of Stephen Sondheim’s important song from his great Follies for several months, knowing that it would be utterly painful for me to listen to so many great performances of one of the most remarkable theater songs that has ever been written, a song, in Follies, about an elderly woman who has long had a crush on another woman’s husband—despite being blessed with a loving husband of her own—who realizes by the end of the work, is no match to her Buddy, and about whom she also realizes she has wasted much of her life imagining an impossible relationship. With its obvious jazz intonations, its driving rhythms and natural modulations, and its psychological complexities, it surely has to be on of the best theater songs ever written, not as witty as most of Sondheim’s masterpieces, but so much from the heart. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to hear, as I just have,  in 10 versions of this emotional expression of inner turmoil without nearly breaking down in tears. And then, as I have expressed many times, I am true intellectual sentimentalist—a situation that probably makes it even worse, since I truly desperately try to resist what my heart refuses to, so that when the emotion takes over it controls everything, always resulting in a release of endless tears.
      The lyrics of this song are really an expression of the situation and, then, brilliantly, after the orchestra returns to remind us of the singer’s suffering, a complete repeat, sung in a slightly different pitch. Singers, in this sense, get two swipes at the marvelous lyrics and musical delights. What more could you ask for?
      Of course, this is Barbra Streisand’s forte, and she does it marvelously in her 2016 Broadway recording. Dorothy Collins is a strong and wonderful singer, who does a more than credible job in the original Broadway performance, and her's remains one of the best of the recordings. And other versions, such as the great theater performer, Dorothy Loudon, whose wavery voice is just perfect for the song, does a great rendition. 
     It’s also hard to fault Glenn Close, who was chosen to sing the song, before the gifted Barbara Cook, during the celebration of Cook’s 2011 award ceremony into the Kennedy Center Honors. And male singers, Jeremy Jordon, Michael Ball, and, particularly, British actor Tim Curry—yes, of The Rocky Horror Show fame—sang it quite movingly at an AIDS concert in 1997. Liza Minnelli did a rather stylish but quite embarrassing jazz dance version; obviously she was not up to the challenges of the song’s more operatic concerns.
     But when all is said and done, obviously, there is only one definitive performance, something that has to be heard before you can comprehend just how significant this work is: Barbara Cook’s wonderful interpretation at Lincoln Center in 1985. Sondheim must surely have wept, and even if he didn’t, he should have. The rest of us probably have every time we hear Cook singing these lyrics:

The sun comes up
I think about you
The coffee cup
I think about you
I want you so
It's like I'm losing my mind

The morning ends
I think about you
I talk to friends
I think about you
And do they know?
It's like I'm losing my mind

All afternoon, doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left
Not going right

I dim the lights
And think about you
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you
You said you loved me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind?

Even Sondheim has made clear the psychological implications of the very last stanza, where the singer spends sleepless nights “to” think about him. It is a problem of her perception, and is, indeed, very much an issue of a kind of insanity, of which she seems to be cured by the end of her startling Follies family revival’s end, when the now self-hating Ben literally has a break-down on stage. He cannot even deal with his current life with Phyllis let alone imagine a true relationship with the love-struck Sally, and both her husband and Ben, life-long friends, show both the terror of all those years of “loving the girls upstairs.”

Los Angeles, December 30, 2017

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2017).  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Douglas Messerli | Songs Porcelain and Silver-Plated (on Barbra Streisand's 2017 concert)

by Douglas Messerli

Barbra Steisand Barbra: The Music, The Memories, the Magic / 2017

Just before Christmas, I sat down to watch the first recording of a Barbra Streisand concert that I had seen since I was a teenager.
Image result for Barbra: The Music, The Memories, The Magic      In several ways, this older Barbra is even better than her younger self of the 1960s when she performed in My Name Is Barbra and Color Me Barbra. Certainly, she now seems less showy and far more sure of herself. She loves, as this Netflix-sponsored film makes clear, to be in charge. And she is in charge, apparently of nearly everything: the songs she sings (even in Funny Girl she insisted to Flo Ziegfeld that she had to choose her own songs), the instrumentation, the pacing of her performance, and, most importantly, she utterly controls her amazing tonal modulations, altering between a quiet hum, melodic whispers, and old-fashioned vocal “belting it out.”
     If anything, she now has greater vocal control, but she’s always had one of the most remarkable voices in song-singing history. Like the very greats, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and so many others, Streisand’s voice is always recognizable and memorable in a way that has attracted what seem to be worshippers more than a mere audience. The Miami audience here felt that they not merely needed to madly applaud each song, but turned every number into a standing ovation, to which Streisand generally and seemingly honestly awarded with a “Thank you,” “Wow!” “I’m glad you liked it!” or “You’re a wonderful audience.”
     If you like good music and, like me, are a hardened liberal, what is there not to like? Although Streisand restrained herself at this concert, you clearly knew what she felt about Trump and his kind, and if you live in Los Angeles, it’s hard not to know that she has given millions to hospitals and other charities. And, because of her talent and goodness of heart, you can almost forgive her from some of her crazy obsessions, like constructing a kind of mini-mall, just for herself, in the basement of her Malibu house. The very fact that she’s still singing so very gloriously is a cause for celebration. So what if she centers much of this concert around her own past achievements, singing far too many of her standards such as “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen?” Give the girl some credit.
      And credit she certainly got from her audience. As Robert Lloyd summarized it in the Los Angeles Times:

Like any great artist, she is at the mercy of the character she converts to art. ("I could not help but do it my way" is a theme of the evening.) She is complicated and contradictory, a Countess from Brooklyn, ethnic and elevated. Her singing is the sound of aspiration, of arrival, of indomitability. It is practiced and it's punk, it's tender and ferocious; she can create an impression of great power by getting very quiet. Her diction is impeccable, her accent unreconstructed. She is precise with her consonants and extravagant with her vowels.

      Yet why did I still have this strange feeling that I would have preferred to be hearing Garland and Clooney, or even the far rawer Bette Midler; it surely would have been more fun. Or listening to a great Broadway songstress like Christine Ebersole, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, or Patti LaPone, all of whom I’ve heard live on stage. Of course, I too liked Streisand on the movie musicals of Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! What I kept asking myself was what wrong with this wonderful performance?
Image result for Barbra: The Music, The Memories, The Magic
       When Streisand sings a stage musical number such as Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” Anthony Newley’s and Leslie Bricusse’s “Who Can I Turn To,” or Jerry Herman’s “Before the Parade Passes By,” I immediately wake up; I too might have given her a standing ovation just for the Newley piece. And I have to give her an award for hutzpah for tackling the dead-on-arrival Rodgers and Hammerstein walnut, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (with Jaime Fox, no less). I could hardly bear that song even in my high school production.
     But the problem is, and always has been, is that, at heart, Streisand prefers the kitsch. She clearly prefers working with Alan and Marilyn Bergman and composers such as Marvin Hamlisch, or with Dave Brusin and Phil Ramone, as she did in her Yentl’s “Pappa Can You Hear Me?” (sorry not the same Yentl I recall from Isaac B. Singer)—all gifted purveyors of populist nonsense, as opposed to the greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or Stephen Sondheim. Even with all her talent, Streisand still prefers the musical silver-plated and porcelain-like knock-offs produced for Hollywood in the manner of The Franklin Mint. Almost every time she has a choice, Streisand chooses sentimentality over wit. And in the end, despite the wonderment she brings to nearly every musical offering, her artistry suffers.
       It’s not that LaPone or McDonald have never sung the Broadway versions of these same knock-offs, written by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney composers; it’s simply that they keep it in proportion, returning to Sondheim or even Jule Styne (the man who actually made Streisand famous), whereas Streisand obviously would rather work with her long-time friends, the Bergmans. I am sure that many in her Miami audience actually prefer “Evergreen” and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” over her nearly perfect rendition of “People.” But Streisand, apparently, doesn’t even recognize the difference.

Los Angeles, December 27, 2017

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Lazy Afternoon" (from Jerome Moross' and John La Touche's The Golden Apple) from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Lazy Afternoon”

Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Kaye Ballard, original cast recording, 1954
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Lucy Reed, with Bill Evans on paino, 1955
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Helen Merrill, 1956
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Joe Henderson (orchestration only)
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Hank Jones (piano and orchestration only)
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Anita Daren, TV version, 1978
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Shirley Horn
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Tony Bennett
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Eartha Kitt, 1992
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Barbra Streisand

It’s difficult to really talk about either the composer of this marvelous song, Jerome Moross or the rather amazing lyricist, John La Touche. In many respects these talented artists, born one year apart, were both completely involved in their classical and performative worlds—Moross was influenced by both Bernard Hermann and Aaron Copland, and La Touche had so many major literary, operatic, and theatrical connections that one might suggest that he was the most connected individuals of his era—yet both were still extreme outsiders, daring to take music and theater into different dimensions. Had La Touche, who died at the early age of 41, primarily of alcoholism, and Moross who died, also a bit early, at the age of 69, have been allowed their full dimensions, we might have truly seen a great revolution in theater and operatic history. As it was, both left behind several important works—Moross, an operatic musical Susanna and the Elders, several classical pieces, and the musical The Golden Apple, and La Touche, wonderful lyrics for Cabin in the Sky, Candide, and The Golden Apple. One aches for their talents to have been more appreciated in their day, and not basically forgotten as they seem to have been. My poet friend, Kenward Elmslie, who lived with La Touche for many years, had long encouraged me to write about him; and I will soon do so. Had I only known what I pretended to.
      The Golden Apple is filled with wonderful musical numbers, but one stands out, and has been recorded by nearly every performer of the 50’s: “Lazy Afternoon.” That song is so languid and restful that it hardly seems to have been written: it appears to be a song spun out of the boring community of Angel’s Roost, Washington, and the nature surrounding:

It's a lazy afternoon
And the beetle bugs are zooming
And the tulip trees are blooming
And there's not another human in view but us two

It's a lazy afternoon
And the farmer leaves his reaping
In the meadow cows are sleeping
And the speckled trouts stop leaping up stream

As we dream
A far pink cloud hangs over the hill
Unfolding like a rose
If you hold my hand and sit real still
You can hear the grass as it grows

Image result for The Golden Apple musical Lazy Afternoon     It’s amazing to me how La Touche completely embeds words in his text that are never heard, but remain in our head nonetheless. In the very first stanza we “hear” the word “human being” despite its absence. In the last stanza of this section, the word “seems” keeps creeping out to rhyme with “dream.” And we know that that “rose” must soon “close.” Not to even speak about how everything in this piece continually “slows.” The lyricist says always far more that he seems to say. Our ears naturally hear words that aren’t even spoken.
     This is perhaps one of the most slow-motion songs ever. Shirley Horn slows in down to a stunningly hover, expanding its notion of laziness to a practically stalled, minimalist musical number, when the lyrics almost counter the emotional content of the young Helen (originally Kaye Ballard) from any of her possible seductiveness. And the usually brassy Kaye Ballad even sings it, in 1954, with a seductive breathiness that you might have never imagined possible from her. She’s quite charming in this early version.
     Lucy Reed is one of the best interpreters of this piece, with Helen Merrill and even Barbra Streisand coming in close. But I’d give the best to Eartha Kitt’s utterly seductive version from 1992: she truly summarizes its slow, steady, intonations that brings Paris to her woodland bed. Even I, as a gay man, would follow her to the “place that’s quiet / ‘Cept for daisies running riot / And there’s no one passing by it to see.”

Los Angeles, December 24, 2017

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Shakespeare Lied" (from Elmer Bernstein's and Carolyn Leigh's How Now Dow Jones) by Douglas Messerli, from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Shakespeare Lied”

Composer: Elmer Bernstein and Carolyn Leigh
Performers: Marlyn Mason, Brenda Vaccaro, and Sammy Smith, original cast recording

Every once in a while, you chose a song not based on its great melodic contributions to the world song book, but—and you must remember, I am also a poet—upon its marvelous lyric gifts. Of course, many great composers, Cole Porter offered both. But sometimes you just need to recognize where they might suddenly appear like gems, long hidden in the earthiness of not such great musicals.
      I never saw the David Merrick production of How Now Dow Jones, nor had I even heard a song from it when, asked to prove to my new New York friends, surrounding John Diserio, that I must have know everything about Broadway musicals, they plopped down a record needle on one of the songs from that same musical, and asked—no, challenged me—to recognize it.
     Even today, I can’t imagine what got into me to immediately identify the song I’d never heard before. Maybe I knew even more than I thought I did, and today I cannot even recall what song it was. Perhaps “ABC,” outlining the important elements of the stock market, or “Step to the Rear,” claiming the wonderful charms of stock brokers? But I, quite brazenly, stood up to my challengers, claiming it must be from How Now Dow Jones. They were in awe that this boy from Iowa who, as of yet, had never actually seen a Broadway musical, could immediately name it. I think I was even in awe of my youthful deceptions.
      Yes, I knew a lot about musical theater, but really, how much could I have actually known in those days? Just words on paper, and much listening to original cast recordings. What presumptuous! And I knew it. I think I went home and cried. I had trumped by challengers, but how much had I not truly known; they might have easily flummoxed me with so many other musical numbers. 
     Now, I’ve finally listened, abashedly, to the wonderful film composer Elmer Bernstein’s only Broadway musical, and for the most part, alas, his songs are not so very remarkable. I wish they were. But one song, stood out: a plaintive song about failed love. What made this song so memorable, however, is not Bernstein’s repetitive chords of “You’ll get over it,” but lyricist Carolyn Leigh’s terribly clever lyrics about female sufferers of love, from Juliet, Camille, to Cleopatra, and, finally Joan of Arc. It’s a marvel of clever lyrics:

The tears that overtake you and take you in the trachea
Go away.

Did she did really intend the end when Cleo clasped her asp?

     This is a song so bitter, a kind a macho apologia for love lost or simply denied. But even Sondheim might have never done better than Leigh, whose cynical and satirical lyrics summarize what women through history have truly suffered, but presumably, “got over it.” These are tough revisionist notions of the historical presumptions that women eagerly sought out death for their lovelorn despairs. Leigh wrote such great lyrics throughout her career, but has seldom been as celebrated as she might have been, although she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, after her death, in 1985. With Peter Pan, Wildcat, Little Me, this musical and numerous other film projects, she was certainly one of the greats.

Los Angeles, December 23, 2017