Friday, September 29, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Leaping Out" (on Deborah Lawlor's Freddy)

Leaping Out
by Douglas Messerli

Deborah Lawlor, Freddy / Los Angeles, The Fountain Theatre, perfomed at the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy’s Caminito Theatre. / The production I saw was a matinee on Thursday, September 28, 2017.

Born in 1936, Fred Herko—known by his later friends in New York City as Freddy or Freddie—grew up in a middle-class family in Ossining, New York, known for the maximum security prison Sing-Sing.
      Despite their relative poverty, when, as a young boy, Herko began showing remarkable musical talents, particularly as a pianist and flautist, his parents made sure he had lessons and even purchased a grand concert piano for the young prodigy. He later attended Juilliard Arts Conservatory to study piano, but, at the age of 20 determined instead to become a dancer. Herko was awarded a four-year scholarship to attend American Ballet Theater School, and later studied with major dance companies, including Merce Cunningham and James Waring, while helping to develop and found, with dancer/performers such as David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer, the Judson Dance Theater, which, along with the music of John Cage, opened audiences up to entirely new notions of what dance might entail: it could be rubbing one’s thighs together, running in space, etc. etc.
      Yet, at the same time Herko danced more traditional modern dance works with James Waring, even choreographing new pieces. He also appeared as a back-up dancer on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan’s weekly broadcasts, with singers such Rosemary Clooney and Pearl Bailey.
      Herko, a hirsute beauty, also was a favorite for poets and playwrights, and performed in several off-off-Broadway downtown productions, including Frank O’Hara’s Love’s Labor and Rosalyn Drexler’s Home Movies, while making close friends with young dancers such as the author of this play, Deborah Lawlor, and poets such as Diane di Prima, who wrote extensively of her friendship with Herko.
      Extremely active in gay sex, moreover, Herko became a favorite of Andy Warhol, performing in his movies such as Haircut (No. 1), Kiss, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, and Rollerskate, in which the dancer, on one roller-skate, rolled on bloody feet through the New York streets.
      The young dancer was also a favorite in the Factory, showing up for late-night revelries with a group of friends—described as the “mole people” for their subterranean lifestyle and their heavy Speed usage—such as Ondine, Rotten Rita, and Billy Name.
      Herko’s long-time boyfriend was Johnny Dodd, who also appeared in Warhol movies and later worked with the Living Theater and in 1964 did the lighting for Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Rumors had it that Herko also had a longtime relationship with the son of a wealthy Hollywood family and was kept for a while by a wealthy member of the De Rothschild family in an Upper West Side apartment. He also had a relationship with Di Prima’s husband, the poet Alan Marlowe.
      But his heavy drug use, the injections of Speed and, later, LSD, began to take its toll. By 1964 Herko had begun to miss rehearsals, and his body, so beautiful, began to fail him: he lost teeth and had a “haggard” look about him, his friends declared.
      Although, that same year, Waring had cast him in a dance production of Wallace Stevens’ Carlos Among the Candles, by October of 1964, Herko was homeless. Dodd, so he reports, found him in a diner, covered with filth, dancing on the countertop, and offered to take him to his home on Cornelia Street for a bath. Other reports, as Gerard Forde, now working on a biography on Herko, asserts that some report that Freddy simply showed up a Dodd’s door.
      And the tale after that is equally conflicted, most agreeing that Freddy took a bath filled with Dodd’s perfume before walking naked into the living room of the flat with the window wide open to a sunny fall day.
      Some report that Herko demanded everyone but a few leave the room. But yet many still report they were there to observe Freddy dance to Mozart’s Coronation Mass. Dodd remembers that Freddy danced wildly, at several times charging toward the window. He, himself, wondered whether or not this was to be the “suicide performance” that Herko had long promised his friends. One can only wonder why no one did anything to prevent Herko's actions.
      After several thrusts toward the window, Herko leapt, like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, out the window, landing, dead, on the other side of Cornelia Street, exactly one day and 53 years ago from the production I saw—surely not a coincidence.
      Di Prima thought she perceived what was close to a suicide note when, in clearing out his personal effects, she found a novel by Mary Renault, opened to the page when the King throws himself into the ocean. But many others argue that Herko was not suicidal, but simply, drugged, wanting to desperately show that he could fly. The planned Stevens' piece had him flying through a window at the end. And, often, in his performances, Herko had leaped off the 20-foot ledge of the Judson School stage without any negative effect.
      The later memorial service at Judson Church was so crowded that only a few could get in, and Warhol, soon after, offered another such service at the Factory, showing Herko’s 3 films.
       I recount this rather extended mini-history of Herko simply to demonstrate why the Fountain Theater’s co-founder, Deborah Lawlor’s new production is such a natural and has attracted so much Los Angeles attention.
      The multi-media-based play, Freddy, looks at him through the lens of a young dancer friend named Shelley (Katie McConaughy, possibly a stand-in for Lawlor herself) and a Present-Day Shelley (Susan Wilder) who together, create most of the tension in the play between the generational facts of Freddy’s life and later perspectives about it.
       One must immediately commend this production not only for using multi-media perspectives but for joining up, as many LA productions recently have, with other organizations to achieve their goals.
     A few years back I saw a production of Tennessee Williams’ nearly impossible-to-perform Camino Real at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena with many cast members being students of the California Institute of the Arts that was so superb that one immediately recognized the rewards of bringing younger and older groups  into the same space. Since then there have been numerous other productions of larger companies, such as the LAOpera, using newer organizations such as Redcat and the Wallis Theater for their more experimental productions to great effect. And one can only commend the wonderful Fountain Theatre choosing to produce their new Freddy at the nearby Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy (Caminito Theatre) with members of the award-winning LACC Theatre performers.
      The use of actor/dancers such as Alexandra Fiallos, Jamal Hopes, Tristen Kim, Jacqueline Mohr, Lamong Oakley, Connor Clark Pascale, Justice Quinn, Savannah Rutledge, Brianna Saranchock, Trenton Tabak, and Jesse Trout gives a remarkable sense of youth to this very celebration of the young of his time who Freddy himself obviously worshiped, as well as giving a spirit to the period portrayed in the play.
      Director of the great theater company of the Fountain, Deborah Lawlor, who was for years a dancer herself and knew Freddy Herko gives the whole production a further gravitas. This is, in part, her personal vision of the completely charismatic dancer/performer, and, in that sense, it is a kind of special vision which we must admire.
     Unfortunately (and I wince, given my admiration of both Lawlor and her company and their commitment to Los Angeles theater in saying this), it is a kind of one-dimensional vision. In her production, instead of portraying what are the obvious complexities of Herko’s sensibility, we see what can only be described as authorial announcements of events: this happened and then and then. Herko’s obviously conflicted life is attributed primarily to his endless sexual activities and, primarily, to his enchantment with drugs. At one dramatic point he even introduces the totally innocent Past Shelley to heroin.
      I’m not questioning whether or not that really happened: I’m sure it might have. But the play, focusing as it does on his sexuality and drug habits makes it almost appear that Herko was a two dimensional figure who had little else going for him; we see little of his dance, his theatrical talents, his obvious “charismatic” encounters, nor even his personal sexual relationships with others. We’re simply told what happened, not who he really is or even was, despite the dual perspective. I have to admit that, without any true evidence, that Lawlor’s script even hints that if Freddy hadn’t died of drugs and self-destructive behavior, he might have died, soon after, of AIDS. Lawlor does not say this. It’s just that in this simplistic statement of his problems it leads, unfortunately to that conclusion. In this version, it appears, he was suffering from too much drugs and way too much sex. Even if that may be true, there is so much else to be discussed.
      Marty Dew, playing Herko, is an attractive man who can obviously dance well, given the help of Movement and Dance Director Cate Caplin and choreographer Gary Franco. He’s a charismatic figure himself who keeps one spellbound; but, I’m sorry to say, he doesn’t yet have the theater “chops” to really portray what were the obvious dilemmas of Herko’s life.
      The play, with Javanese-like puppet figures, does attempt to reveal the young Herko’s childhood where he was encouraged by his family to play the piano. But it doesn’t truly deal with awful truths such as when Freddy revealed to his father that he wanted to change to ballet, he was beaten.
      That little fact alone suggests that this man was eternally torn by the projectives of his life. The Julliard School reported that he was unable to “focus,” which means, of course, that he had an inability to commit to the years and years of intense practicing that it might take to become a concert pianist. Herko was clearly a poly-talent, a man with so many gifts that he didn’t quite know how to share them. And, looking back on his history, how could he, given the time in which he lived, possibly find an easy solution? Yes, there were many in his community who were intensely seeking to find multi-cultural ways in which to experience art; but the society at large was in closure, a world in which it was not so easy to cross “over” the many, many boundaries that art and life put up before the individual. One only needs to read Michael S. Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy to confirm it.
     Diane Di Prima raged against Freddy’s endless gay encounters, for example, in her poem “Fucking Again.” He was late for another date with her. Herko’s current biographer, Forde writes that “He liked hanging out in sleazy bars.”
     What, I might ask, were not sleazy bars in that gay-phobic world? Even in 1969, five years after Freddy’s death, I visited New York bars which anybody in my Iowa hometown (and even in New York) would have described as sleazy, the Stonewall being one of the worst of them!
     Freddy was truly seeking love in everything he did. The night before his death he performed on the roof of the Judson Church without a single person having bothered to attend. I’ve had such poetry readings, but I can’t imagine what that might have meant to this fragile man, physically falling apart before his own eyes.
     Lawlor’s production is one in which the audience must really “make believe,” must imagine rather than truly experience the characters. For these young actors don’t quite yet know how, despite their obvious talents, to put the darker and lighter elements of their characters into greater relief.  Whether they are running through the openly sexual environs of Warhol’s The Factory, or trying to discover their own personal sensibilities, they seem to be simply sleep-walking through their character's lives. Surely the figures they represent might have something deeper to say, to query their own choices, even as they recognize they can no longer make such choices. Only Wilder (as the Present-Day Shelley) seems to be able to understand some of the errors of your younger perception.
      And then, there is Herko himself, obviously a sort of Peter Pan-like character, living out his life in a far more delusional “flower-child”-like perspective than the West coast’s San Francisco early 1960s figures. These New York folk, nonetheless, were also innocents gone over the edge into a kind of Never-Never Land from which they simply could not return. It can only be such young people as in this performance than can truly convey a world in which a person like Freddy, in an endless diminutive of his own manhood expressed by his very nick-name, might determine to truly become a Peter Pan, leaping through that Cornelia Street window despite and because of the fact that he knew he was now too old for the voyage. He had already performed as a dancer who falls through the skies in Waring's Icarus, with sets by Robert Indiana.  
     The great dancer Paul Taylor, also a late-to-life dancer, once told me (when I was 21 or 22) that “You’re never too old to become a dancer.” But I knew he was lying, that no matter how hard I studied (as I did that year at Joffrey Ballet Company) that I had come into to it far too late—despite some very nice comments from my severely authoritarian ballet teachers.
     Freddy suggested to Di Prima that he needed Speed to allow him to do what he wanted to do since he come so late to dance. But he clearly misunderstood what Speed really was. As graduate students in the early 1970s, my companion Howard and I—both of whom hated and continue to hate the use of any drugs—did explore with Speed a couple of times to finish writing deadlines. In fact, I wrote a couple of my essays from my Masters’ Thesis on Eudora Welty with the enhancement of Speed.
    Yet, we both realized that instead of slowing down time so that we might work against the imaginary clock, if we encountered one another during these times we would suddenly engage in conversations that took hours away from our true work, making us lose what we were actually trying to gain.
      Herko wasn’t losing time, but actually gaining it, his body suddenly decaying, his mind lost in a kind of space that took years away from his talented imagination.
      His final leap through that window may not have been intentionally suicidal but it was a leap “outside” of reality, “outside” of time, “outside” of his own remarkable contributions—a leap into a reality beyond us. And, in retrospect, it is damnably painful for all those who might have wished he could have lived on to exercise/exorcise his so-many talents.
      But, in the end, I beg you, don’t read my piece alone. Go see the work, Freddy, which brought me to all these words. It’s worth seeing and wondering after.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones | "My Cup Runneth Over" I Do I Do from "My Favorite Musical Theater Songs by Douglas Messerli

“My Cup Runneth Over”

Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

Singers: Mary Martin and Robert Preston, 1966 (original cast recording)

Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

Singer: Ed Ames, 1967

Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

Singer: Perry Cuomo

Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

Singers: Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews

Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

Singer: Aretha Franklin

I have to say that Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones 1966 musical, I Do, I Do! seemed even old-fashioned and fustian in 1966; but with the cast of Mary Martin and Robert Preston, under the direction of Gower Champion and the production of the masterful David Merrick what could go wrong. The musical went on to become a long-running hit, with many of its best songs such as “I Love My Wife,” wonderfully sung by Preston and, my favorite, “My Cup Runneth Over,” sung also by dozens of other interpreters such as Ed Ames, Perry Cuomo, and even Anita Bryant, making it a quite popular standard.

      Jan de Hartog’s play, The Fourposter, upon which it was based, was even a nostalgic and sentimental thing back in 1951. And Schmidt and Jones, noted for their minimalist productions with highly romantic music and lyrics were probably perfect for its transformation into musical history, but hardly lightened up the marital tearjerker.
     You’ll have to chalk it up to old age and the fact that Howard and I have been “married” for 51 years that “My Cup Runneth Over” still chokes me up every time I hear it. I can hardly bear with its corny use of Elizabethan-like language such as the word “runneth”; every time I hear it I also think of the time when a glass, sliding across our glass dining table due to a bit of water underneath, brought the quip from Howard: “my glass runneth over….there and there!” So there is laughter always just underneath my flowing tears. I believe it’s the final stanza that finally does it for me:

In only a moment we both will be old
We won't even notice the world turning cold
And so, in these moments with sunlight above
My cup runneth over with love
My cup runneth over with love
With love

     Howard and I now are old, and despite our countless difficulties, I guess we are still in love. So you’ll have to forgive this choice as simply a very personal one.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones | "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Try to Remember”,vid:E32tk4mq2tY
Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Singer: Jerry Orbach, 1960 (original cast recording)
Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Singer: Andy Williams, 1965
Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Singer: Julie Andrews
Composers: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Singer: Harry Belafonte, (live recording)

Based simply on the beauty of two songs in their off-Broadway, very long-running (17,162 performances) musical The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, and their more recent Broadway successes, including 110 in the Shade and I Do, I Do!, one of the earliest Broadway shows I chose to see was the 1969 production of Harvey Schmidt’s and Tom Jones’ Celebration. A disaster. Certainly, I’ve never heard a song from it since my first night experience. It was a year of bad musicals: just before that I had attended Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert E. Lee’s Dear World!

    But the simple theatrical conventions of The Fantasticks, beginning with its lovely first song, “Try to Remember,” which attempts to take its presumably elderly audience back into a time of true innocence, very loosely based on Edmund Rostand’s Les Romanesques, with its numerous references to abductions and the growing correct-thinking anathema described by the word “rape.” Goodbye Shakespeare, Yeats, Pope, Donizetti, even gentle Eudora Welty! Schmidt and Jones were forced, over the years to change several of their lyrics of the song “It Depends upon What You Pay.”

    “Try to Remember” remains a lovely paean to American innocence, and takes its audience beautifully down memory lane to when “you were a callow fellow,” even the word “callow” hiding its intimations of dangerous immaturity. This song was so beautiful that nearly every crooner (male and female) in the business have attempted to sing it. The original El Gallo, Jerry Orbach, is still my favorite, despite wonderful orchestral versions by Andy Williams Harry Belafonte, Julie Andrews and, most recently (2015) Josh Groban. But Patti Page’s 1001-instrumental backup and the movie version’s Jonathan Morris leave me cold—despite the fact that I found the movie version quite charming.

     But who can complain with these simple lyrics, supported by the just as simple a set and piano-accompanied production of the original? There’s something to be said in musical theater that seeks out the purest elements of its roots, which Schmidt and Jones seemed to sense. They represented, in their day, what Stephen Sondheim rose to be later on. And, as I describe elsewhere in this series of “My Favorite Musical Theater Songs,” their other major piece from this musical, “Soon It’s Going to Rain,” seems to have so many Sondheim links that they simply cannot be perceived as accidental.

Try to remember the kind of September

When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

Try to remember the kind of September

When grass was green and grain so yellow.

Try to remember the kind of September

When you were a young and callow fellow,

Try to remember and if you remember then follow.

Los Angeles, September 26, 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "The Quarantined Couple" (on Strindberg's The Dance of Death)

by Douglas Messerli

August Strindberg (adapted in English by Conor McPherson), The Dance of Death / the performance I saw, directed by Ron Sossi, was at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble on Sunday, September 24, 2017

Conor McPherson’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death which I saw at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theater Ensemble yesterday, represents a slightly revised version of Part I of the original play, deleting several minor figures, and closing in the terrifying triumvirate of monsters who attempt to destroy one another.
     Nearing their 25 wedding anniversary, former artillery captain, perpetually dressed up in military costume, Edgar (Darrell Larson) is a penurious and, in this part of the play, acutely poor man who, surely as Strindberg himself did to his several wives, berates and dismisses the much younger Alice (Lizzy Kimball), who was previously a mediocre actress.
     Living on an isolated island in a horrific-looking stone edifice—formerly the island’s jail—they have very few friends, both dismissing the local bourgeoisie as “small-minded nincompoops,”—and, in their hatred for one another have also turned their children, living on the mainland nearby, against them.  Indeed, as the play begins they lose yet another cook, and throughout the play cannot seem to be able to serve up even a cold meal. They are true vampires or, as we later perceive, even cannibals. Perhaps they don’t need real food. Besides, the Captain refuses to pay his bills.
    The sudden arrival on the island of Alice’s cousin, Kurt, who since his divorce from his wife and the loss of his children’s custody—a painful issue for him, which he later discovers was partially the doing of Edgar—and who since has been traveling to the US and elsewhere, creates a new dimension of friction between the already deep hatreds for each other which they have been acting out.
    Kurt has now been hired to create a quarantine center on the island, suggesting that a world which is already separated from the rest of civilization, might become even a center of those people who, as Strindberg puts it, live in a hell created by others and themselves. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Strindberg’s is a world of the characters’ own-making and from which the sufferers cannot escape. This modern couple lives without a telephone and rely only on an antique Morse tape recorder, a bit today like living without a computer and cell-phone. (Admittedly, Howard and I do not own the latter).
      Much like George and Martha in Albee’s Strindberg-influenced Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edgar and Alice play a game similar to “Get the Guests” with Kurt, airing their open hatred of one another, while simultaneously attempting to win him over to their own side. As in the Albee play, the woman first succeeds in wooing the guest, the still-attractive Alice not only drawing Kurt temporarily to her bed, where he bites her lip like a vampire and suggestively hints that he would like to bound and rape her.
     When Edgar ups the ante by declaring that he has found Kurt’s son and brought him as a young soldier to island, Alice strikes back by turning her husband in for an insurance-fraud scheme.
     If Strindberg’s black work is brutal it is, just like Albee’s play a work that alternates between terror and comedy, as each of the marital partners perpetually find ways to torture one another. Their (and Strindberg’s) constant creativeness in their methods present us with what might be described as a comedy of marital horrors. The battlers, in this case, like elks with antlers locked, cannot release themselves from the struggle, and will clearly die in one anothers’ metaphorical horns.
     These two, however, are seasoned travelers to the hell which they have created for one another, while Kurt, a basically gentle being who finds himself suddenly caught up in this maelstrom, is completely humiliated and even shocked by his and their behaviors. And when, finally, Edgar reveals that his stories have all been lies, Kurt changes sides, and quickly abandons the woman who he now realizes is just as diabolical as her husband, quickly fleeing the familial circus for the bourgeoisie households which Edgar and Alice have dismissed.
     The play ends, as in Albee’s work, with a quiet détente, which we know will quickly be broken as the next day begins. But in that minute of peacefulness we also come to comprehend that those two self-haters are also, still, very much in love, both declaring, for just one moment, their own fears and sorrows for the lives they have created.
      These three characters demand such a high degree of subtle vulgarity that they are nearly impossible to perform except by the very greatest of actors. I’d like to have seen a production with Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier (who did play the Edgar role in 1967) , for example, or Vanessa Redgrave and some male of her league. Kimball, Larson and Jeff LeBeau, however, make a credible attempt to convey the dark comedic world that Strindberg created, and at moments Kimball’s tortured beauty and Larson’s dapper, if crazed, dances lift us to something close to the play’s demands.
      The Odyssey Theater Ensemble has done so many wonderful plays over the 48 years of their existence, that it is notable that the company would produce this important play in Los Angeles. Strindberg, despite his true madness, spun like a creative hurricane through the early 20th century which such a force that, in one way or another, he has influenced nearly all of us. Even my own play, written under my pseudonym, Kier Peters, Past Present Future Tense, is a child, through Albee, of Strindberg’s Dödsdansen.
     Once more, the Odyssey should be recognized for their far-sightedness in reviving this work.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stephen Sondheim | "Johanna" (from Sweeney Todd) My Favorite Musical Theater Songs by Douglas Messerli


Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Victor Garber (orginial Broadway production), 1979
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performers: Len Cariou and Victor Garber and others (Johanna Quartet), 1979

Composer: Stephen Sondheim

Performer: Cris Groenendaal, 1982 revival

Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performers: Jamie Campbell Bower and Johnny Depp and others (film Quartet), 
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Bernadette Peters
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Nathan Gunn
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Max Chernin, 2015
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Josh Groban
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Perforner: Blake English

With its often minor-keyed orchestration, its crashing trumpets and tympani, and the soaring tenor melody, Stephen Sondheim’s song, “Johanna,” from the darkest of his many dark musicals, might be among the most beautiful songs ever created for the musical stage.

       I saw the original production with my companion Howard in 1979; we were on an overnight trip to New York, and I simply walked over to the Uris Theater and brought tickets for that evening to the show, an event that will probably still be rolling around in my mind even if I sink into Alzheimers. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury are not a pair you easily forget. But then, too, Victor Garber’s solidly lyrical voice (we will soon be seeing the Canadian singer again in Hello, Dolly! playing with Bernadette Peters as a substitute to Bette Midler) is nothing something that cannot be ignored. His dulcet tones as the young sailor Anthony Hope represent everything in Sondheim’s sad musical that Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are not: love, faith, youth, and dreams. In his version of this Maria-like repetition of her name, his sole goal is to “steal her away” and bury himself in her yellow hair.

It’s simply a beautiful melody. But then Sondheim transforms it in its reprise into something that is even more amazing: a mini-opera sung as a quartet between Anthony, Sweeney, an old beggar woman right of our Weill’s Mahagonny (actually Sweeney’s now-mad wife) and Johanna herself, trapped in an insane asylum. The dramatic import of this operatic grouping is so amazing that it is transformed into a metaphor that speaks for the entire work, combining the hatred and obsessions of Sweeney, the desperate pleas of the heroine (Sarah Rice), the total madness of that heroine’s mother, and the pleading youthful hopes for love from Anthony. Musical theater simply doesn’t get better than this, and it’s a song filled with such a deep sense of possibility and utter failure that it quite literally saves Sondheim’s work from its basic morbidity, just as his “Not a Day Goes By” attempts to stave off the cynical tones of Merrily We Roll Along.  

     Who wouldn’t want to record this song, and almost all males with a good voice and the musical range it demands had done fine recordings, including Josh Groban, Max Cherin, and Nathan Gunn. In the 1982 revival, Cris Groenendaal rather over-dramatizes it and sings it a bit to emphatically. But the film version, sung by Jamie Campbell Bower has a much lighter and charming touch, that when joined later by Johnny Depp and other film singers makes, once more, for a remarkable dramatic statement—even if the blood punctuations of Sweeney’s throat cutting assaults seem a bit too much. Depp is no Len Cariou, who could make a death ballad sound beautiful (I’d love to hear him sing “Poor Judd Is Dead”), but he is no musical slouch, performing the song with great musical panache.

I feel you Johanna
I feel you
Do they think that walls can hide you?
Even now I'm at you window
I am in the dark beside you
Buried sweetly in your yellow hair

And are you beautiful and pale,
With yellow hair,
Like her?
I'd want you beautiful and pale
The way I've dreamed you were
     Bernadette Peters is one of the few women who have sung this song straight on, and so beautifully that you might think the “angels” who no longer prevail in Sweeney’s world are still there in her voice.

     After now listening to more than 10 versions of Sondheim’s melody, I may suffer many an upcoming night humming to myself in my sleep.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II | "Ol' Man River" (from Showboat) My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Ol' Man River”

Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jules Bledsoe, 1927 (original Broadway performer)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson, 1928 (with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson, 1936 (film version)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: William Warfield, 1951 (film version)
Composers: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Frank Sinatra, 1946

In what many see as the first great American musical—certainly one of the first “serious” Broadway musicals—Florenz Ziegfeld moved away from revue and light entertainments, producing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s remarkably rich score of Show Boat at his Ziegfeld theater in 1927. Purportedly, Ziegfeld did not like one of the work’s major songs, “Ol’ Man River;” given some of the kitsch productions (I’ve included Frank Sinatra’s version here 
just as an example of such), one might comprehend his doubts.
      Yet, in Jules Bledsoe’s performance, who sang Joe in the original production, we can hear his well-enunciated anger at the white community who treats him so abysmally while working on the river that “just keeps rollin’ along.” His version may not vocally be the best, but it’s certainly of the best expressed and is a true denunciation of the slavery all around him.

     Paul Robeson’s 1936 film rendition is perhaps the best known, with small changes to the original text (“darkies” instead of ”niggers,” etc.). The picture above is from the earlier 1932 stage revival of the musical. 
    His version, particularly in his 1928 recording is much faster than Bledsoe’s, and, at times, he oddly seems more interested in the river itself than the bigotry of which the song so severely condemns. It is, of course, a work of comparison, describing the puny meanness of the human race against the endless flowing of the mighty Mississippi, the only peaceful aspect in Joe’s troubled life.

Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be
What does he care if de world's got troubles
What does he care if de land ain't free

Ol' man river, dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin', but don't say nuthin'
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along

Human beings are another thing:

You an' me, we sweat an' strain
Body all achin' an' wracked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif' dat bale!
Git a little drunk an' you lands in jail

Ah gits weary an' sick of tryin'
Ah'm tired of livin' an' skeered of dyin'
But ol' man river
He jes' keeps rolling' along

     Warfield’s singing in the 1951 film version is a darker, bass setting of the same song.
   Hammerstein reveals himself in this early work as a far deeper lyricist than his later musicals—although in every work he has one or two songs with far more political context (think, for example of “Poor Judd Is Dead” in Oklahoma!, South Pacific’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” or the spectacular narrative retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in The King and I). But it remains difficult, even now, to accommodate the idea of the same lyricist who writes “Git a little drunk an’ you lands in jail,” or “Ah’m tired of livin’ an’ skeered of dyin,’with the fabulous metaphor of “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” And when one also realizes just how important Hammerstein was in Stephen Sondheim’s career, it gets even a bit stranger. Hammerstein seems far more home in the “Make Believe” reality, than in the gritty world of slavery and miscegenation; but there he is, way back in 1927, long before he had anything to do with Richard Rodgers, working with the highly romantic composer Jerome Kern.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2017  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frank Loesser | "I Believe in You" (from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“I Believe in You”

Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Michele Lee, 1967 (film version)
Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Robert Morse, 1961 (original Broadway recording)
Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Robert Morse, 1967 (film version)
Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Robert Morse (Tony Awards program)
Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Matthew Broderick, 1995 (revival)
Composer: Frank Loesser
Performer: Daniel Radcliffe, 2011

Frank Loesser’s beautiful song from his How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is sung twice in the 1961 Broadway production, once as a kind of love paean to the young would-be executive, former window-washer, J. Pierrepont Finch. The second time it’s sung by the now on-the-rise businessman Ponty as a love song to himself, while all around him other young executives plot his downfall with a sub-song “Gotta Get that Man,” wherein the other employees even beg the audience “Don’t let him be such a hero!” In some senses, this song parallels Sid Sorokin's mockery of a love song, "Hey There," in The Pajama Game. But Morse's character really does love the subject of his song, himself. No self-mockery here. 

      Only Robert Morse perfectly captured the totally self-captivated, yet utterly charming character he represented, although later Matthew Broderick and the elfin Daniel Radcliffe bravely tackled the dichotomy of a man so enchanted with himself that he is simply beautiful to watch as he stands at a sink before the mirror that reflects his charming smile—to both himself and to us. Like the secretary Rosemary Pilkington (in the original stage musical Bonnie Scot and in the movie version the glorious singer Michele Lee), we love Morse despite his obvious inability, until late in the show, to share love with anyone else. When he finally does, in the beautiful crescendo of “Rosemary” and the later all-team love-a-thon “Brotherhood of Man,” he moves on to become the Chairman of the Board of the mysterious World Wide Wicket Company.

The young Morse—long before his drag queen days of Sugar and his one-man impersonation of Truman Capote in Tru, was as cute, as my older aunts might have expressed it, as a button, with even the great gay-oriented Carl Van Vechten putting him before the camera—in real life, Morse was married, and had five children. But you wouldn’t know it, even as early as his heterosexual Finch in How to Succeed, given his satirical gay-winking delight with his audiences. As a character, he’s utterly terrified of women, including the well-endowed Hedy LaRue. And when he finally does fall for Rosemary, it is only after she has done nearly everything in the secret book of “How to Catch a Husband” to lasso him in, at the very moment she is not so sure that she wants her trophy. Still, she’s “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” and is absolutely ready to retire to New Rochelle, even though, ultimately the couple move into the World Wide Wicket Suite for the Chairman of the Board.

      The great composer Loesser’s songs include some very engaging pieces, including “The Company Way,” “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” and the nearly impossible to dance, Bob Fosse’s “Coffee Break” (we’re told they simply could not recreate it for the movie). But there’s only one song you might go home humming, the smug commitment to the self so beautifully expressed in “I Believe in You.”

Gotta stop that man,
I gotta stop that man cold . . .
Or he'll stop me.
Big deal, big rocket,
Thinks he has the world
In his pocket.

Gotta stop, gotta stop,
Gotta stop that man.

Now there you are;
Yes, there's that face,
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you to hear me say it,
But say it I must, say it I must:

You have the cool, clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth;
Yet there's that upturned chin
And that grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you.
I believe in you.

     Morse might well have "believed" in his character. The musical, which opened at Broadway's 46th Street Theatre in October of 1961 ran for 1,417 performances. The 1995 revival at the Richard Rodgers Theatre again broke into long-running status at 548 performances. Even the 2011 production, which I saw at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre lasted 473 performances. 

Los Angeles, September 18, 2017