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
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
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