Sunday, March 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Rodgers' and Hammerstein's song from South Pacific, "Some Enchanted Evening," part of My Favorite Musical Theater Songs


“Some Enchanted Evening”

Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Ezio Pinza, 1949 (Original cast recording)
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Frank Sinatra, 1949
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Paul Robeson
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Perry Como
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Giorgio Tozzi (sung by Rossano Brazzi) and Mitzi Gaynor, (film version) 1958
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jane Olivor, 1979
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Barbra Streisand
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my0wluaE_io
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Rossano Brazzi, late 1980s
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performers: Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara, 2008
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Placido Domingo, 2011
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Michael Feinstein, 2014
Composers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Performer: Jackie Evancho

I started this morning feeling, as Charles Bernstein and I have often expressed our reactions to Rodgers and Hammerstein works, a bit surgery. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza are after all the very definition of those words, despite their incredible talents. And they were the original creators of the musical versions of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s memorable song “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song I knew I must include in this short anthology. It is a major song in the American musical song book, as musicologists such as Michael Feinstein have described it. And, of course, its soaring and darker turns make that song one of the best of all musical theater songs.
      
     The problem is, as I perceive it, is that the original and movie version determined to use great operatic voices to give the role more credence. Ezio Pinza, was in fact, a kind of marvel, his strong baritone/bass voice rumbling us into belief in the character, and in the movie version Rossano Brazzi (pretending to be the voice of the handsome Giorgio Tozzi) convinced us of the magical love that the character finds in encountering his would-be Arkansas “hick.”
      But, ultimately, the soaring, swirling and falling musical operatic voices, which also included Paul Robeson, Placido Domingo, and other operatic singers are possibly not the best expressions of Rodgers’ musical compositions. The women performers, such as Barbra Streisand, Jane Olivor, and Jackie Evancho, really do the song more justice, and tear on the heart. Gay singer Michael Feinstein, in his cabaret style, does well by it—although, once more, like my criticism of David Bowie’s version of Moon of Alabama, I wish he had been able to change the “she” to “he” in order to more truly be honest to the somewhat “gay-laced” lyrics, all about meeting a stranger in a crowded bar and falling immediately in love. Hammerstein was probably one of the most straight-laced lyricists who ever composed for American musical theater, but he evidently admired his gay student, Stephen Sondheim, and, he became Rodgers’ lyricist after the death of the very gay lyricist-partner with Rodgers, Lorenz Hart.
      South Pacific, as I have written in these volumes before, is heavily infused with a gay sensibility; it is, after all, a world where young, sexually desirous men were completely isolated from women in a place of utter sensuality. But I never before realized how deeply Hammerstein had embedded that world into the gay possibilities until I thought deeply about this very straight love song. It might almost be spoken of as a gay anthem to the old-time gay bars, where suddenly you meet someone and, hopefully/possibly, fall in love:

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons
Wise men never try.

    Of course, love is always like that; but isn’t this what transgressive love is all about? An “enchanted evening” even seems to be a magical carpet of a gay love affair, not a heterosexual romance, particularly given the fact that the romancer already has two children. No wonder Nellie Forbush is all aghast! She’s an American bigot not at all ready to meet a romancer of the type of the Frenchman, Emile De Becque. But it’s a let’s pretend world, much like Hammerstein’s early Show Boat and his later Rodgers’ collaboration, Carousel, deeply involved with imaginary relationships. If you can just move beyond the sugar, there’s something deeply destructive about these heterosexual love songs. They’re all pretense. “Maybe,” they say, “perhaps,” we might fall in love. I think I might even be able to get you a “surrey with the fringe on top.”
     And that beautiful little girl in the photo above, one of De Becque's children, is our friend Candance Lee, who also performed as one of Yul Brynner's endless children in The King and I

Los Angeles, March 11, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2018).


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