Theater Shelf: Rodgers & Hammerstein Shows You Haven’t Seen, Irving Berlin Reader, Broadway MVPs,

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.

By Brad Hathaway

Rodgers and Hammerstein Between The Hits

From time to time I hear from my readers that they don’t buy something I said. Most of the time they are right.

Recently, I reviewed the book Flower Drum Songs and I’ve drawn some flak from readers for an opinion in the review which at the very least I should have attributed to the author of the book, and at best should have refuted.

The statement was that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song “was something of a last chance at success for the team that had so dominated Broadway between 1943 when their Oklahoma! burst on the scene through 1951 when they had their fourth mega-hit, The King and I, with Carousel and the Pulitzer Prize winning South Pacific in between. The intervening eight years, however, had seen two disappointments (Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream) leaving their reputation as a team in tatters as possible has-beens.”

Emails and postings to discussion groups pointed out that those eight years included the release of blockbuster movies based on their musicals, highly successful touring productions of their work and the telecast of Cinderella which was reported to have gathered over a hundred million viewers to make it the most watched television show in history – hardly the mark of a team “in tatters as possible has-beens.”

My statement was an attempt to relate the position of the author of the book, David H. Lewis. He begins the first chapter with this: “Were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the reigning giants of musical theatre, washed up? Suffering through the longest drought of their legendary career, the two men who had revolutionized stage musicals, landing nearly one huge hit after another on Broadway, had not had a single success in nearly eight years.”

Whether the period between The King and I and Flower Drum Song was a “drought” or not, the two original Broadway cast albums of their shows from that period deserve consideration for the theater shelf of your collection. Both offer items that those who love the scores of the team’s big hits will find delicious.

Of the two, my favorite has to be Pipe Dream, which as it happens, was the less successful of the two. It racked up 246 performances while Me and Juliet had 358, neither up to the standard of the team’s big hits. Oklahoma! had 2,212, Carousel 890, South Pacific 1,925 and The King and I 1,246.

Of the two, Pipe Dream has the more Richard Rodgers-ish score, even though it was composed while he was undergoing horrendous treatments to battle the cancer that required the removal of half his jaw. Perhaps it was the therapeutic aspect of composing that resulted in such gems as “Everybody’s Got A Home But Me,” “The Next Time It Happens” and my personal favorite “The Man I Used To Be.” Comparing the overtures of the two shows demonstrates just how much more like Rodgers that Pipe Dream sounds, but perhaps the touch of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett who did Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I had something to do with that. Me and Juliet was orchestrated by Don Walker who also did Carousel.

The trouble with Pipe Dream wasn’t attributed to its score, but rather to the material on which it was based, John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday. Others might well have made a successful musical of his story of the denizens of California’s Cannery Row, but even Richard Rodgers later commented he and Hammerstein had been “seduced by the writing” of Steinbeck and hadn’t recognized “the fact that the characters were not right for Oscar and me. We shouldn’t have been dealing with prostitutes and tramps.”

I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing productions of either musical. Perhaps if I had seen Pipe Dream I could explain to you just what former opera singer Helen Traubel was doing singing “Babaloo.” Rodgers composed a lovely “Sweet Thursday” for her, however, and the team finally found a place to use the appealing brief for marital bliss, “Will You Marry Me?” which was written for South Pacific but was dropped in previews.

“All Kinds of People” is a fine example of Hammerstein’s ability to express a main theme for a musical. “All At Once You Love Her” has an honored position in Hammerstein’s collection of songs about the moment that love takes hold, and there is a wonderful joyousness about “The Party That We’re Gonna Have Tomorrow Night.”

Me and Juliet also has glories, especially in the work of Hammerstein. There are two lyrics, “The Big Black Giant” and “Intermission Talk,” that grant us a glimpse into the mind of Hammerstein, who historian Gerald Mast said “is the American musical theater” in the same way that Jerome Kern said “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music.” This giant, whose works from Rose Marie through Show Boat and Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, wrote two lyrics for this backstage musical that illustrate just how we, the audience, appear to the professional theater maker.

The description of the audience as a “Big Black Giant” comes from his decades of listening to the audience during previews to learn what would work by opening night. “That big black giant / who looks and listens / with thousands of eyes and ears / that big black mass / of love and pity / and troubles and hopes and fears / will sit out there / and rule your life / for all your living years.”

He gave voice to the personal goal that must have been a driving force in his own life when he wrote “One night it’s a laughing giant / Another night a weeping giant / One night it’s a coughing giant / Another night a sleeping giant. / Every night you fight the giant / And maybe, if you win / You send him out a nicer giant / Than he was when he came in.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t just listen to their audiences during the performances. Hammerstein added a lyric titled “Intermission Talk” that draws directly from the experience he and his fellow professionals have had trying to eavesdrop in the lobby between acts. Snippets of “I wouldn’t wait for the second act if I had someplace to go” and “It just isn’t my kind of play” are intermingled with “I don’t think it’s right / to be sulky all night / over one little bill from Saks!” and the oh-so-contemporary-sounding “What do I care if they balance the budget as long as they cut my tax?”

In between those two numbers is another with a view of life in the theater. “It’s Me” is a performer’s account of how the work of the authors of a show accrues to her personal benefit: “When I step on a stage and make believe I’m someone else / Quite suddenly I’m mentally and physically equipped with most unusual qualities / It says so in the script!” Rodgers composed a delightfully lilting melody for the song that harkens back to his work with Lorenz Hart, and Don Walker gave it a rousing big-band sound.

From that fateful day at Highland Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when Richard Rodgers asked Oscar Hammerstein to collaborate with him, til’ the opening of their last show together twenty years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t turn out any scores that don’t deserve to be included on a theater lover’s shelves. Thank goodness both Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream received original Broadway cast recordings.

Me And Juliet
Original Broadway Cast Recording
DRG Records
ASIN: B00187PNF6
Running time 40:45

Pipe Dream
Original Broadway Cast Recording
RCA Victor Broadway
ASIN: B000003FDU
Running time 47:55

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The Irving Berlin Reader

This book is almost a fantasy fulfilled for me. I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to just take a few days off, go to the reading room of some huge library like the Library of Congress, settle in with the card catalog, bibliographies and reference databases in search of books and magazine and newspaper articles about and by a single important theater artist. This would be so much more than just reading a full biography on your subject because you could get a variety of views and a feel for the way he or she was viewed at different times during his or her career.

As much as I’d like uninterrupted days in a reading room, I never seem to be able to free the time. Now, taking Irving Berlin as his subject, editor Benjamin Sears has done the search for me and put the results into a single volume: a “reader” which I can carry home with me and plow through at my leisure. He has packed 42 different pieces by and about Berlin into 200 pages. What is more, he presents an introduction for each piece, explaining how it came to be written, providing information needed to understand references that have become obscure with the passage of time and correcting some of the errors that have crept into otherwise valuable articles.

Of course, Sears spent more than a few days with card catalogs to come up with this material. In fact, he’s spent a lifetime. He’s one half of the cabaret act / research team of Ben & Brad with his partner Brad Conner. They are noted for applying their scholarly research on the work of Berlin and the Gershwins to their cabaret act, and have made the first recordings of over thirty of Berlin’s songs including one they unearthed which was presumed lost:  1916′s “Santa Claus – A Syncopated Christmas Song.”

When Sears went into some of his favorite libraries in search of items for this collection, he knew where to look and could bring his expertise to the selection of the most illuminative and interesting pieces. As he points out in his brief introduction to the volume, he had to sort through a great number of items in search of the best of those that aren’t readily available elsewhere. He found that “the sort of ‘fluff’ reporting now associated with certain popular magazines was no less prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century.”  Maybe it was a good thing that I had Sears to select the items rather than spending my days at the library digesting the “fluff” for myself.

The book presents a very positive portrait of Irving Berlin, but it is clearly no simple whitewash of an uncritical paean to a man whose career spanned sixty years of writing songs for sheet music, phonograph, stage, radio and screen. While Sears obviously brought a deep appreciation for Berlin and his songs to the task, he leavens unrestricted praise with articles such as Brooks Atkinson’s review of Annie Get Your Gun which termed the score “routine composing” or John Russell Taylor and Arthur Jackson’s discussion of Berlin’s songs as having melodies that are “unforgettable, certainly, but somehow ordinary and the words are adequate but little more.” He also gives us Murray Kempton’s “Bit of Blues for Ballads of Berlin” which implores “the good Lord (to) deliver us from those dreary ballads. ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody’ is far short of what a pretty girl is about.”

Perhaps the most important single entry in the book is the source of probably the most famous single statement about Irving Berlin – Jerome Kern’s “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” The statement came in a letter to Alexander Woollcott who was preparing a biography of Berlin and asked Kern for some comments he could quote. Sears reprints the letter in full and it includes Kern’s description of Berlin’s working method: “Berlin molds and blends and ornaments his words and music at one and the same time, each being the outgrowth of the other. He trims and changes and refashions both, many times and oft, but nearly always strives for simplicity – never elaboration.”

Of course, some of the stories which became part of the legend of Irving Berlin show up time and again in these entries. But it is interesting to see both how long lived some of these “legends” are and how different some versions are from others. The book provides different perspectives on such overly simplified versions of the truth as Berlin’s ignorance of musical notation, his famous piano with a mechanism to change keys by throwing a lever, and the claim that he could only play on the black keys (the Key of F# major.) As to that final canard, Sears says, “If he had, his music would be pentatonic and sound very much like the music of the impressionists (e.g., Claude Debussy). Despite the preponderance of the black keys in his playing, Berlin’s chords and melodies made full use of the diatonic and chromatic scales.”

The longest single entry may well be the best of the bunch. It is a thirteen-page article by Josh Rubins from the New York Review of Books on the occasion of Berlin’s 100th birthday in 1988. It dissects some of his best known compositions and gives, as Sears points out in his introduction, “insight into how Berlin seemingly effortlessly made the unusual seem commonplace, both in terms of his music and lyrics.”

Another entry that runs almost as long is an excerpt from Charles Hamm’s article analyzing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” This, however, would have benefited from a bit of judicious editing by Mr. Sears as it goes on quite a bit too long hammering home points already made.

At the other end of the scale, some pieces are as short as an excerpt from a 1941 newspaper article quoting Leopold Stokowski on the topic of “God Bless America.” The excerpt runs 103 words, but really all that was needed were the six words that summarized Stokowski’s view: “‘God Bless America’ is good music.”

At mid-length are items like Joshua Logan’s tribute to Berlin on the occasion of his 90th birthday which includes a story illustrating how famous Irving Berlin once was. He tells of his commanding officer during World War II who shunned requests from Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hap Arnold, but yielded after a short phone call from Berlin. Logan, who directed the original Annie Get Your Gun also reveals that Berlin’s singing voice was so soft that he had to stand very close when singing a new song. Logan repeats the comment “You have to hug him to hear him.”

An excerpt from an article by Mark Steyn includes reminiscences of some of Berlin’s colleagues. Irving Caesar (who wrote the lyrics for Youmans’ “Tea for Two” and Gershwin’s “Swanee”) said “Some years ago, an interviewer asked him: ‘Mr. Berlin, can you write a hit song anytime you want to?’ and he said, ‘No, only Cole Porter can do that.’ She giggled and told him she’d asked Cole the same question and he said ‘No, only Irving Berlin can do that.’” Caesar added “You know what? They’re both right.”

Sears doesn’t just give us samples of what other people have written or said about Irving Berlin. He devotes 35 pages to the words of Mr. Berlin himself, either in correspondence or articles he wrote or articles based on interviews he gave which quote him at length. These include Berlin’s own nine rules of songwriting (see pages 175 – 176).

I came away from The Irving Berlin Reader saying “what we need are a George Gershwin Reader, a Richard Rodgers Reader and a whole lot more.” As it happens, Oxford University Press has already published a George Gershwin Reader and a Richard Rodgers Reader. We’ll take a look at them in future columns.

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The Irving Berlin Reader
Edited by Benjamin Sears
200 Pages plus chronology and index
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-19-538374-4
List price $35

Broadway Musical MVP’s

What is a reviewer to do when a book shows up for review that has a pull quote from him praising the author to high heaven? Is it a conflict of interest to praise the new volume as well?

When Peter Filichia’s newest book hit my desk I was presented with this conundrum. What to do?

Then I read the pull quote … “Peter Filichia – the well-known, well-liked and well-respected reviewer and writer about musical theatre – is famous for his eye for detail, fascination for trivia, love of the genre and the generosity of his coverage. — Brad Hathaway, DC Theatre Scene.”

There isn’t a word in that quote I’d take back. In fact, if I hadn’t already written it, I’d write the same paragraph in a review of the new book. So, let it stand and move on to the task of spreading the good news that Filichia has done it again. He’s produced another highly readable, thoroughly enjoyable and uniquely idiosyncratic volume – something that could have come from no other pen.

In “Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010″ Filichia applies to musical theater something of the fascination of sports fans, especially baseball fans, for awarding favorite player trophies for “Most Valuable Player” and other categories.

It seems that the bent of a baseball addiction explains a great deal about Filichia’s thought process as a maven of musical theater. Apparently he comes by it honestly, for he shared with his father a fascination for baseball that ran concurrently with his own immersion in the world that spills over the footlights on Broadway.

In his introduction he makes clear that he believes that July 26, 1961 was about “as close to a perfect day as I’ll ever experience.” It was on that date that he saw his first musical on Broadway. After the matinee, his father picked him up to go to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees and the White Sox in a game where Roger Maris “thwacked two round-trippers” en route to breaking Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs in a season.

It isn’t unusual, I suppose, that a baseball fan would relate the statistical importance of a game he has witnessed. But theater fans often confine themselves to things such as how good or bad the performance was, how the score worked and what the audience enjoyed or not. But this book isn’t by the usual theater fan.

In typical Filichia style, he reports not just that the show he saw that afternoon was My Fair Lady, but that it was the show’s 2, 229th performance.

Filichia takes a distinctly sports-like approach to theater appreciation in this volume. For each season over the half-century 1960 to 2010, he picks not just MVPs, but a whole host of award categories that sports writers often confer on baseball efforts: Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Greatest Comeback, Best Reliever, etc.

The book is no mere list of awards, however. Each choice is explained in a brief but detail-filled essay that reveals stories, statistics and situations that make for fine reading.

Check out his 1962-1963 Rookie of the Year write-up for Neil Simon who that season gave the world the fun of witnessing Sid Caesar play all seven men in the life of fictional “Belle Poitrine” by writing the book for a musical version of Patrick Dennis’s Little Me. He tells of Simon’s pre-musical career, the origin of this show and the future career of which this first musical was a harbinger.

Not all the kudos go out for actions that took place on the Great White Way. He gives his 1965-1966 Most Valuable Player to Mary Martin for eleven performances of Hello Dolly! before a total of twelve thousand soldiers and sailors in war-torn Vietnam.

Picking which year to give some people their awards must have been difficult. He gives Stephen Sondheim the Most Valuable Player award for 1970-1971 for Follies but his write up makes it clear just how many seasons Mr. Sondheim enriched. Consulting his calendars and records as he is wont to do, Filichia reports that “there have been only nine years in his half-century-plus career where none of his work was heard on Broadway. Since 1987, there’s only been one: 1982.”

Filichia doesn’t limit himself to giving the award only once to each recipient, however. He names Sondheim again in 1978 – 1979 for Sweeney Todd and also bestows the Comeback of the Year award on him for 1969-1970 for Company.

Nor does he limit himself to one award to a person who deserves more than one in a given year. Chita Rivera receives kudos as MVP, Comeback of the Season and Reliever of the Year for Kiss of the Spider Woman. He takes the opportunity to write a four page encomium to Rivera that, while going on as long as a Kennedy Center’s Honors tribute, is a fascinating survey of her career.

Christina Appelgate gets four awards for 2004-2005 for her work on the revival of Sweet Charity.

One category that seems particularly fascinating to Filichia for the opportunity to tell seldom told stories is “Reliever of the Year.” His 1975-1976 honor goes to Liza Minnelli for her emergency stint in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago when Gwen Verdon had to undergo surgery on her throat. Not only does Filichia relate the fairly well known facts of that legendary stint, he works in a much more obscure story from before his own time saying that “South Pacific … had to drop the character name of ‘Ensign Lisa Minelli’ (sic) that Oscar Hammerstein II glibly put in as his tribute to Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli’s daughter” long before the then three year old Ms. Minnelli became a star in her own right.

It is also typical of Filichia that all of these “awards” are for positive accomplishments. He doesn’t deal in negatives if he can help it. No “flop of the year” award or “worst performance” trophy. It isn’t that his standards are low, or that he gives unjustified breaks to those who let their audience down. The only place for negatives in his world is as a set up for a positive. Of Raquel Welch’s stint as Reliever of the Year for 1981 – 1982 when she filled in for Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year he says, “Her voice, however modest, was substantially better than Bacall’s.”

It is apparent that he is so appreciative of success in creating the magic of musical theater that he is more interested in kudos than in complaints. For this, I say “bless him.”

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