Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (My Favorite Theater Musical Songs)

“Moon of Alabama” (“Alabama Song”)

Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performers: Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, 1927
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Performers: Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 1930
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Lotte Lenya, 1930


Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Performer: David Bowie, 1978

Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Marianne Faithfull
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Nina Hagen, 1992


Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Performer: Nina Simone

Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: David Bowie, 2002
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Performer: Ute Lemper
Composers: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Performer: Audra McDonald

Listening yesterday to over 10 versions of Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s central song in their Sprechstimme operetta, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930), I realized that this just pre-Hitler work (the music was composed in the late 1920s), was perhaps the culmination of the Weimar Republic’s cynical visions of the need for alcohol, love, and, most importantly, money. There has never been a more cynical song which simultaneously survives a beautiful ballad. It’s a song that you can equally love and  hate, yet want to listen to over and over again. And apparently anyone with a good voice and the guts to perform such a raunchy piece, has attempted it.

      Lotte Lenya, the original singer, still sounds right to me, with her raspy German cabaret voice; she was after all the composer’s wife, a perfect interpreter, with whom, in one recording, Weill performs alongside. But you can’t not love David Bowie’ version (two performances of which I have included, although I wish he might have kept the original lyrics, with the pretty boys instead of pretty girls, given his own sexual ambiguity), Marianne Faithfull’s, and Audra McDonald’s later performance of it just for their attempts to embrace such a problematic song in their repertoires. 
     Nina Simone tunes it down, actually using the Sprechstimme techniques to tell the story of the early choruses, before suddenly breaking into her wonderful renditions of the “Moon of Alabama” interjections. She’s also such an excellent pianist that she can torture all the dissonance out of the song. The Doors’ version may be one of the best! And Ute Lemper is always the wonderful interpreter of Weill songs that made her famous. Nina Hagen does an almost drag version, which is perhaps not a best interpretation of the woman who wants whiskey, pretty boys, and dollars as fast as she can get them—or she'll will die:

Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar!
Oh don't ask why,
Oh don't ask why!
For we must find the next whiskey bar
For if we don't find the next whiskey bar,
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mamma
And must have whiskey
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next pretty boy!
Oh don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why!
For we must find the next pretty boy
For if we don't find the next pretty boy
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have boys
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next little dollar!
Oh don't ask why,
oh don't ask why!
For we must find the next little dollar
For if we don't find the next little dollar
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have dollars
Oh, you know why.

This is a world in which everything of importance in the past has died, and the survivors expect that they won’t survive either, the fact of which, obviously was borne out in Hitler’s World War II destructions of his own people; yet here, the same fate is projected onto the American experience.
     It’s utterly amazing to me how such a truly terrifying view of the world is rendered tragically beautiful in Kurt Weill’s version, with its memory of the moon of Alabama constantly vying with the terrible demands of human sexuality, drugs, and their need of financial sustenance. This song is a lesson in human failure and depravity without consigning its singers to Hell. I believe no American-born writer could possibly write such a remarkable piece of music. It came right out of the raw Weimar experience, even though it pretends to be in a fantasy America somewhere between Alaska and Alabama.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on "On the Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady, from My Favorite Musical Songs

“On the Street Where You Live”


Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

Performer: John Michael King, 1956 (including full original musical recording)

Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Performer: Vic Damone, 1956


Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

Performer: Eddie Fischer, 1956

Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Performer: Jeremy Brett (sung by Bill Shirley), 1964
Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Performer: Nat King Cole
Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Performer: Dean Martin
Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Performer: Andy Williams, 1964


Composers: Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

Performer: Harry Connick, Jr., 1992

Frederick Loewe’s and Alan Jay Lerner’s great 1956 musical, My Fair Lady, has often been described as “the perfect musical.” While it is a truly memorable work, I don’t think I would go so far to describe it is “perfect,” or maybe it’s just that I like my musicals with a little roughness around the edges; after all to create a musical is to almost defy all odds, combining the musical skills of opera with theater, an very odd mixing that perhaps only the odd British pair of Gilbert and Sullivan truly achieved, and even they often failed. But there are so many wonderful songs in My Fair Lady—"Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"; "With a Little Bit of Luck"; "The Rain in Spain"; "I Could Have Danced All Night"; "Get Me to the Church on Time”; and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" among them that it becomes difficult to choose simply two musical numbers to represent it.

     I’ve chosen the standard “On the Street Where You Live,” an odd choice when you think that the singer of this beautiful ballad is the musical’s fool, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a kind of idiotic ninny who falls in love with Eliza Doolittle simply because she speaks a kind of street-talk he, born wealthy but without any money himself, has probably never heard before.
     If there was ever an example of the inside/outside dichotomy (this year’s overriding concern) it certainly is this song, for Eliza, as a poor flower-seller, has most of her life on the street, while silly Freddy has lived in the post Belgrave area of London, into which Eliza has suddenly ensconced herself given Henry Higgins’ absurd game-playing attempts to transform her into a princess. If Higgins, moreover, is a self-dedicated bachelor (which in those days was code for being gay), poor Freddy really does seem to be a would-be romantically inclined “lover,” although his effeteness is also a theme of the work. But he, who has been protected in the inside, is now a dedicated to the street, at least the street where Eliza lives, and will not even enter the house, preferring the simply walk down the street where he has countless times before. In short their roles have been completely reversed.

I have often walked
Down this street before,
But the pavement always
Stayed beneath my feet before.
All at once am I
Several stories high,
Knowing I'm on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees
In the heart of town?
Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?
Does enchantment pour
Out of every door?
No, it's just on the street where you live.

And oh, the towering feeling
Just to know somehow you are near
The overpowering feeling
That any second you may suddenly appear.

     Even Eliza eventually, despite the brutal sexism of Henry, rejects Freddy’s high romanticism, in her cry of “Words, words, words,” and her demand that instead of talking that he should “show her,” in other words, grab her and kiss. Freddy is all words, but the words (and music) of the Lerner and Loewe song are so soaring that we forgive the nincompoop and would simply love him to reprise the song.
      Almost every male singer in the musical world did sing this song, including Vic Damone, Eddie Fischer, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Harry Connick, Jr., and they all sang it well. But I still prefer John Michael King’s original version, where he sings with such absolute belief in that magical street that you’re almost convinced.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

Douglas Messerli l "Slipping Again" (on lyricist John Latouche), book by Howard Pollack / 2017 (biography)

slipping again

Howard Pollack The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Pollack’s wonderful new biography of lyricist/poet John Latouche is, at times, frustratingly academic in its often-overbearing detail of somewhat insignificant facts and is not the most gloriously written book one has read—but it is so utterly fascinating and revealing that one can forgive most of its flaws.

      First of all, a man who was fairly close friends with most of the major composers of the day, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Vernon Duke, Virgil Thompson, Marc Blitzstein, Duke Ellington, Jerome Moross, Ned Rorem, Harold Arlen, Douglas Moore, John Cage, and so many more; who was a confidente to writers spanning from James Branch Cabell and Tennessee Williams (he introduced the playwright to his to his longtime companion) to Gore Vidal, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, Jane and Paul Bowles, W. H. Auden—he even briefly shared the famous Brooklyn
house where the Bowles’ and Auden lived—William S. Burroughs, John Ashbery, and E. E. Cummings, artists and gallerists such as Larry Rivers and John Bernard Myers, and who was the companion of poet Kenward Elmslie for the last five years of his life; and who  simultaneously was great friends with numerous New York social figures—all of whom, except for a very few, thought him witty, entertaining, and utterly fascinating, even if— they nearly all agreed—he could be completely demanding and self-centric, is simply someone worth documenting.

     Besides all that, Latouche worked with numerous Europeans, helping or attempting to introduce American audiences to figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, Bertolt Brecht, and numerous lesser figures. You might describe him as simply a seminal figure in the brilliant 1950s artistic, very gay New York world. And Pollack’s significant biography reveals aspects of US cultural history, bringing to the forefront what might otherwise have simply been forgotten. If nothing else, Latouche was a connecting link in the American cultural scene between European traditions, a new attempt to interconnect dance, music, and theater, and the so-called underground gay cabaret New York work that infused new life in the US theater scene throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.                       

     More importantly, however, is the fact that the Richmond, Virginia-born writer also contributed significant lyrics to numerous musicals, operas, and other performative pieces, challenging the notions of Broadway musicals and operatic conventions in a way that was quite often frustrating yet totally liberating to his collaborators. 

     Besides his remarkable literary salons, his lyrical compositions for the underground New York cabaret performers, and his tossed-off poetic contributions, Latouche had a rather remarkable theatrical career, including the lyrics for Vernon Duke’s and Lyn Root’s all-black musical (and later film, directed by Vincente Minelli) Cabin in the Sky (with Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, J. Rosamond Johnson, Katherine Dunham and her dancers); Banjo Eyes, also composed by Vernon Duke, as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor; The Lady Comes Across, music again by Vernon Duke, with book by Dawn Powell, choreography by George Balanchine, with Misha Auer, Gower Champion, and Eugenia Delarova, among many other notable dancers; a musical celebrating the Polish war efforts, Polonaise, with music by Chopin and directed by Stella Adler; Beggar’s Holiday, yet another version of The Beggar’s Opera, this with music by Duke Ellington, with an interracial cast; the well-received Ballet Ballads, with music by Jerome Moross and choreography by Hanya Holm, including 3 of the 4 verbally composed ballets by Latouche: Willie the Weeper, Riding Hood Revisted, and the notable The Eccentricities of Davy Crockett, all of which the singers both danced and sang; the award-winning The Golden Apple (again with music by Jerome Moross, and starring Kaye Ballard and Stephen Douglas, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical of 1954); The Vamp (with James Mundy and starring Carol Channing); the successful American opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, composed by Douglas Moore; as, finally, the lyrics to, at least the first act, for Leonard Bernstein’s and Lillian Hellman’s musical Candide—all before he died in 1956 at the young age of 42! These contributions all from a man who himself thought he was perhaps “lazy” and “desultory,” and who was, in fact, an extreme alcoholic, and who most friends would have described as a person who really was more of a raconteur than a creator. Most of these works, accept The Ballad of Baby Doe, alas were also Broadway failures, why most Americans have never even heard of his name!  How do you begin explaining such a remarkable life? Pollack had clearly a large task in undertaking this biography

       Perhaps the only thing you can do is return to the lyrics, which my friend Kenward Elmslie asked me to do time again. I wish I’d known of Elmslie’s relationship with Latouche—with my love of all things theater, I did, in fact, know a little (very little I now perceive) of Latouche—and, of course, I wish I had then read more about the lyricist: I’d have immediately done a book! We can never truly forgive ourselves for youthful ignorance.

       But I will take a few of the lyrics to try to redeem myself. Latouche, as Pollack makes quite clear, often with excellent poetic analysis, was truly a brilliant lyricist. Let’s begin with his early lyric from Cabin in the Sky, a song sung by the always remarkable singer/actor Ethel Waters (a song performed by nearly every major singer including Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and numerous others), and which might almost characterize Latouche’s life, who fell in love again and again—a true romantic of the old Southern tradition:

Here I go again
I hear those trumpets blow again
All aglow again
Taking a chance on love
Here I slide again
About to take that ride again
Starry eyed again
Taking a chance on love
I thought that cards were a frame-up
I never would try
But Now I'm taking the game up
And the ace of hearts is high
Things are mending now
I see a rainbow blending now
We'll have a happy ending now
Taking a chance on love

Here I slip again
About to take that tip again
Got my grip again
Taking a chance on love
Now I prove again
That I can make life move again
In the grove again
Taking a chance on love
I walk around with a horseshoe
In clover I lie
And brother rabbit of course you
Better kiss your foot good-bye
On the ball again
I'm riding for a fall again
I'm gonna give my all again
Taking a chance on love

     This combination of Cole Porter and the great American romantic tradition is so remarkable that I think I hardly need delineate the line by line transitions. But it is important to note, that despite the repeat again and again of precisely that word, Latouche uses inner rhyme such as, in the fist stanza, “blow”/”aglow”/ “slide”/ “ride”/ “eyed”/ “tired”/ “mending” / “blending,” etc. But it is his metaphors about luck and change that truly stand out in his clever lyrics—the horseshoe, clover, and the rabbit who she even warns ahead of time—that demonstrates her leap into the impossible world of love that is so totally engaging that we share her leap into that new world with joy and pleasure. As many critics have noted, Latouche is a kind of later-day Lorenz Hart, and not just because both were gay, but because of how they used basically gay situations to express heterosexual relationships. One only need compare Latouche’s highly clever lyrics with Hart’s beautiful ballad, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” to recognize their similarities.

Seen a lot
I mean a 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

     It’s clear just from the lyrics that the poet took chances far too often but did finally find love. And it’s painful to comprehend the difficult transition, just as it is for even the breezy renditions sung by Waters and Fitzgerald. But for me, Judy Garland’s and Barbara Streisand’s slower versions really capture the nature of Latouche’s happy/rather frightening possibilities of new love. Isn’t that what love is all about, wonderfully possible but terribly frightening in the same very moment, which is what his lyrics truly express?

     Or, consider his wonderful song “Lazy Afternoon” from The Golden Apple, where, basically that young Helen seduces Paris:

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 trout stop leaping up stream
As we dream
A fat 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
It's a hazy afternoon
And I know a place that's quiet, except for daisies running riot
And there's no one passing by it to see
Come spend this lazy afternoon with me

This is basically Jerome Moross’ song, with its it curling in melody, undulating into completely sleepy rhythms that simultaneously seduce the figures into a sexual drowsiness; but it’s Latouche’s wonderful lyrics that reconfirm that, with the “zooming” / “blooming” end rhymes surprising us with how the “view” suddenly zooms in the “us two,” seducing the couple to sit “real still” to hear the grass grow and the “daisies running riot.” The “reaping”/ “sleeping”/ is suddenly cut by the “leaping” by the interruption of “up stream,” a place distant from this “hazy afternoon.” And even the daisies’ “riot,” is cut short by the fact that “no one passing by it to see.” The central focus of this lovely, falling melody is, finally, the “me,” Helen who is singing it. Song lyrics don’t usually have such marvelous subtlety. But Latouche always gave them his whole, which makes a basically end-rhyme lyric something more important that what it first seems.

      Even more profound, in many respects are Latouche’s lyrics, highly romantic again, and even suggesting fellow Virginian Edgar Allen Poe, for The Ballad of Baby Doe, these from the opening stanzas of the Moore operatic work “The Willow Song.”

Willow, where we met together
Willow, when our love was new
Willow, if he once
should be returning
Pray tell him I am weeping too.

So far from each other
While the days pass
In their emptiness away.
Oh my love, must it be forever
Never once again
To meet as on that day?
And never rediscover
The way of telling
The way of knowing
All our hearts would say.

Gone are the ways of pleasure
Gone are the friends I had of yore
Only the recollection fatal
Of the word that was spoken:

     Here Latouche delays the rhymes, “day” / “say,” “yore” / “nevermore,” while even holding other end rhymes into other stanzas such as “together” / “forever” / “Never” and postponing the other off-rhyme “pleasure.” Everything in this lyric is delayed, attenuated as the couple’s love has been, pushed into a realm that neither of them can any longer comprehend. Rhyme itself is used as a strange device of delay, “away” / “day” / “say.” As Moore’s music arches into high soprano arias, Latouche’s language keeps her weeping down to earth, delayed, and, just perhaps, a bit too knowing and rehearsed, subtly suggesting that the loving Baby Doe is just a bit more knowledgeable about her power over the wealthy Horace than we might suspect. Yet, she remains a kind of innocent here, trying to “rediscover” what “All our hearts would say.” In short, Latouche makes this aria one in which Baby Doe is both wise and innocent, a woman on the make who is, nonetheless very much in love. That balance in a single two stanzas is what I might describe as pure genius.

     I have to admit, finally, by the time I finished Howard Pollack’s long (565 pages, with notes) volume, I had too fallen in love with John Latouche. Wish I’d known him, and I also wish my friend Kenward had told me more about him. But even friends don’t always truly communicate their deepest feelings, do they?

Los Angeles, February 17, 2018