Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Leonard Bernstein's, Betty Comden's and Adolph Green's song "Ohio" from Wonderful Town (from "My Favorite Musical Theater Songs")


“Ohio”
by Douglas Messerli

Composer: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Performers: Rosalind Russell and Jacqueline McKeever, 1958
Composers: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Performers: Bea Arthur and June Anderson, 1991
Composers: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Performers: Kim Criswell and Audra McDonald, 2002
Composers: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Performers: Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt, 2003
Composer: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Performers: Elizabeth Stanley and Amy Spanger, 2015

The whining plaints of the Ohio song in Leonard Bernstein’s version of My Sister Eileen in the musical by him, Betty Comden and Adolph Green in Wonderful Town (1953) is one of the most emotional responses to simple homesickness that has ever been presented on the stage. The marvelous Sherwood sisters come to New York, like all of us did, with complete belief in the possibilities of self-discovery and the excitement that the city had to offer, and encounter precisely those tantalizing possibilities. Yet, of course, the challenges the city offers—then and now, today it would be impossibly unaffordable for these to immigrants from Ohio—create fear and confusion.
     
      There is no better song to express those fears than in Bernstein’s and lyricist’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s plaint, “Ohio,” where the two sisters wonder why they have left their home in Ohio to try to make it in the big city. It expresses everyone’s fear of being in a new, impossible to perceive world, despite their needed dismissals of their own limited past.
      Bernstein puts it literally into a lovely whine, with the “Ohio” calling out to the two galls, at the very moment they still reject their limited lives of the past. Even if the newly constructed subways over their heads and the open windows of their dusky basement arouse the attentions of local carousers, they will remain, we perceive after this heartfelt plea, they will remain to become true New Yorkers. If they doubt their decisions about moving to Greenwich Village, we also know they have escaped the world in which they previously felt constricted.
      I couldn’t find a version from the musical with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams, but I did find a good version from the 1958 television version with Russell and Jacqueline McKeever. I saw the 2003 revival with Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt and loved it. But I’ve also included a Berlin production with Kim Criswell and Audra McDonald from 2002 and another revival song with Elizabeth Stanley and Amy Spanzer from 2016. But there are far too few versions of this marvelous song.
     Wonderful Town has a great number of memorable songs, including “A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” “A Little Bit in Love,” and the infamous “Conga,” but my favorite will always be this early sentimental plea for a world which the sisters have now clearly abandoned:

Why, oh why, oh why, oh
Why did I ever leave Ohio?
Why did I wander to find what lies yonder
When life was so cozy at home?

Wond’ring while I wander,
Why did I fly?
Why did I roam?
Oh, why oh, why oh
Did I leave ohio?
Maybe I’d better go

O -- h -- i -- o.

Maybe I’d better go home

Los Angeles, April 11, 2018

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