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

1 comment:

  1. My review of this lovely book was posted here: