Posts Tagged ‘ Richard Rodgers ’

Reviewing Rodgers – 3: Babes in Arms

If you’ve ever wondered who is to blame for “let’s put the show on right here in the barn”, then you should probably direct your frustration in the direction of Rodgers and Hart.  In Babes in Arms, which hit Broadway in 1937, they devised a story where a group of teens put on a show under their own steam as those pesky adults had spoiled their other plans.  It may not have been the first time this trope was used, but it was probably responsible for popularising it.  The subsequent film even starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, if further proof were needed.  We can’t even blame the scriptwriter (or librettist, as they tend to be known in musical theatre circles), as Rodgers and Hart wrote the spoken words as well as the music and lyrics, the first show which they wrote entirely on their own.

In its historical context, their plot must have been a refreshing change from the parade of typical musical comedy affairs, where boy meets girl, suffers a series of frustrations for two hours and finally get the girl just in time for the rousing finale.  There is romance, of course, but the principal dramatic thrust of the show is the generational conflict between the ‘babes’ and their elders, alongside the difficulties and dramas inherent in staging a show.  However, like most shows of the era, the script is said not to work at all to modern eyes and ears.  It also contained one song, ‘All Dark People’, that is now considered to be politically incorrect, but sometimes gets sung without the offending lyrics as ‘Light on Their Feet’.

Although Rodgers and Hart created an enjoyable story, if contemporary reports are to be believed, it is the score which ensures that this show remains among the better-known of their efforts.  It produced more well-known songs than any other musical of the 1930s, besting even the original songlist of Anything Goes on that front.  Babes in Arms introduced the oft-recorded ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, along with the comic gem ‘Johnny One Note’, and two other numbers which have had a long life: ‘Where or When’ and ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’.  The rest of the score is well worth listening to as well.

The first song, ‘Where or When’ has a romantic melody from Rodgers, and a typically unusual lyrical idea from Hart.  It’s a love song, between two people who have only just met, who declare that “it seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before”.  It’s destiny, or fate, or whatever.  Yes, they’ve fallen in love at first sight, but in some ways this is not exactly true.  It may not be quite as well known as ‘My Funny Valentine’, but has been recorded at least 75 times, and is a charming love song.  Other than the title song, it was the only Rodgers and Hart number to survive into the film version.

Another duet, ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ has an incredibly perky melody as the singers list aspects of their love affair that make them wish they were in love again: broken dates, endless waits, pain, strain, double-crossing, sleepless nights…  Yet they still miss it.  It is possible to make the song wistful, longing or tragic, but it started life as a typically cynical entry in the canon of Rodgers and Hart love songs.

Pure comedy comes in the form of ‘Way Out West’ and ‘Johnny One Note’.  The first is cousin to ‘Manhattan‘, being a list song about missing the life on West End Avenue in New York to a loping, Western-style tune.  Aspects of city life are compared to the wagons, cattle, ranches and so on of the open range.  ‘Johnny One Note’ takes a different tack and tells the ridiculous story of an opera singer was cursed so that he could only sing one note, and could sing it so loudly that all other noise is drowned out.  It contains one of my favourite sequences of Hart lyrics:

Poor Johnny One Note

Got in Aida,

Indeed a great chance to be brave.

He took his one note,

Howled like the North Wind –

Brought forth wind that made critics rave,

While Verdi turned round in his grave.

The unexpected rhymes in the middle of the lines make this a particular pleasure and the song gives opportunities for singers to show off just how loud and long they can belt a note.

Back to romance, and ‘My Funny Valentine’ is another song that approaches love from an unusual angle.  Originally sung to a character named Valentine, a “noble, upright, truthful, sincere, and slightly dopey gent” it lists all the reasons why he shouldn’t be adored – he isn’t smart, his looks are laughable and so forth – but she wouldn’t have him change a thing about himself.  It’s a rather touching way of saying “I love everything about you”, loving him for his supposed faults, not despite them.  Rodgers’ melody supports this by climbing ever upwards as the singers rhapsody for their “sweet comic Valentine” grows more intense.

Songs heard less frequently include the ‘look on the bright side’ song ‘Imagine’ which has a little sting in its tail, a charm song ‘All At Once’ about growing up, and ‘You Are So Fair’, a song of frustration at a fickle lover which turns into a point-scoring duet that sounds a little like the opposite of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’.  All are good quality songs that repay repeated listening, which is not something that can be said for many Broadway songs of the era.

Surpassing all the others in terms of popularity though, is probably ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, which was picked up by many artists at the time and for decades afterwards.    Unsurprisingly, it is a song where the point is the opposite of the title.  It spoofs the high society of the time, and by saying that she refuses to bow to many of the societal demands, the singer is proving that she is anything but a tramp.  She goes to the opera, which was fashionable, but unlike those who have gone there just to be seen, she “stays wide awake”, she likes the simple things in life and refuses to join in the rituals that make you somebody.  She’d the sort of person the world needs more of.   The song, even without orchestration, has a bold, brassy sound that is just right for her air of defiance and is instantly recognisable.

An exchange of dialogue towards the end proves my opening point.  “Do you children have a theatre?” asks French aviator Rene Flambeau. “No,” comes the response, “but we have something better – we have a barn!”  Mr Rodgers, Mr Hart, you have a long history of cliche to answer for.  But with a score like that, you can definitely be forgiven.  Other Rodgers and Hart shows, most notably On Your Toes and Pal Joey, may have made greater contributions to the development of the musical, but this score remains their most listenable over seventy years later.

Reviewing Rodgers – 2: My Romance

The love songs of Rodgers and Hart are often not exactly love songs, tending to have a sting in their tail (which may or may not be revelatory concerning Hart’s character). Love is frequently compared to an illness (see ‘This Can’t Be Love’ or ‘It’s Got To Be Love’), and some of their best songs tell of a lack of love or a wrong love (‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ or ‘Spring Is Here’). One of their most emphatically positive love songs, though, is ‘My Romance’ from the musical Jumbo.

Jumbo, it has to be said, is not a show that is likely to be revived in the near future, despite having served as the songwriting duo’s triumphant return to Broadway in 1935 (having not found great success or pleasure on Hollywood). Descriptions vary, but you get the impression that plot, songs and performances were overshadowed by the setting – a circus, complete with a live elephant. Frankly, what chance does any normal element of a production have when it’s competing with a great big elephant, particularly when the climax of the show involves said elephant placing its foot on Jimmy Durante’s head?

It would have been entirely understandable if Rodgers and Hart had made a negligible effort with the score for this show, since it could be drowned out by the hundreds of regular-sized animals and overshadowed by the horse-riders, jugglers, human cannonballs and, of course, the titular pachyderm. However, several of the songs are highly noteworthy. ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ is a very pleasant waltz number (Rodgers has a lot of very pleasant waltz numbers in his catalogue), and ‘Little Girl Blue’ is an astonishing song of loneliness. ‘My Romance’ itself is a beautiful ballad of love, with a simple, affecting tune and an inventive lyric.

In his lyrics, Lorenz Hart has fun with the stereotypical love song, subverting the trite, overused ideas to create something new. The song is full of negatives, with sprinklings of ‘no’, ‘not’ and ‘doesn’t’ throughout the lyric, as the singer describes what is *not* necessary for romance – “my romance” doesn’t require moons, lagoons, castles, soft guitars, dances, specific times of year or starlit nights. All the things that lyricists are so fond of rhyming in their love songs, essentially. So if all these things and more are unnecessary, what does this romance need?

Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true
My romance doesn’t need a thing but you.

It was not truly a new idea, but the way it was expressed is refreshingly different, allowing Hart to make a point about some of the lyricists of his day while still providing a romantic conclusion.

Rodgers, for his part, provided a gorgeous melody which spends most of its time gradually climbing upwards, apart from a ‘B’ section which rises and falls in unexpected ways. The main tune is full of long phrases which convey the depth of feeling behind the song and the steady climb upwards speaks of a building ardour which climaxes on ‘fantastic dream come true’ before descending on the final phrase, making it almost a statement of rational fact. A very happy fact, of course, but the shift from the steady climb to a gentle descent shifts gears from rhapsody to contentment.

It is rare for me to be able to identify exactly what the melody is doing, but because the words and music fit so beautifully together, the music makes complete sense (though this is likely to be Hart’s doing, as they tended to work music-first, while Rodgers and Hammerstein were generally lyric-first). Because of this, ‘My Romance’ is one of my favourite Rodgers and Hart songs to listen to and quite possibly my favourite to sing. There is a wonderful simplicity about it which disguises the craft that went in to creating the song. It’s an absolute gem.

Rehearsal ups (and downs)

Rehearsals for amateur shows are strange things, often.  You never quite know what the atmosphere will be like as a great many different people gather together for a common purpose, some more enthusiastically than others, to create and improve a show.  A wonderful time can be had by all, in which very little is achieved, or a great deal of work can be done by a group of moody people, or anything in between.  The exact mix of people present can affect matters – is a cast member sick?  is the wardrobe mistress present, taking measurements?  is it the choreographer’s night off?  A particular moment can stump everyone and consume the whole rehearsal.  Some people are kept busy all night, while others can (if things are badly planned, or good plans go awry) sit around doing nothing.  You can have a collective breakthrough or a collective nervous breakdown.  As April ended, I had a particularly interesting rehearsal experience.

At the very tail end of May, I’ll be in a show about the wonderful Richard Rodgers, to be performed at the Whitstable Playhouse (book your tickets now, all who desire to see it).  It’s a strange show for me, as I’m playing said Mr Rodgers in a sort of featured capacity, which means that I don’t tend to be on with the ensemble very much other than at the beginning and end of each act, where I lead the cast in song.  However, as I have been asked to be at almost every rehearsal, I have stood in for missing members of the male ensemble, to the point where I know the words and choreography for almost every number, often with slight variations according to which particular man I’m standing in for.  This is a great deal of fun, but can be rather confusing.

As part of the show, I sing Carousel‘s fantastic ‘Soliloquy’ part way through Act Two. This is a privilege and a challenge, as it’s an incredibly powerful piece which has to be truly acted and truly sung with all the heart and soul that the performer can muster. It scares me and excites me at the same time, and there’s one part which I know I’m not getting perfectly right. It’s just seven words – ‘the way to get round any girl’ – and I’m working on it, I really am. I refuse to listen to a recording of it, as I want to do it my way, not John Raitt’s way, not Gordon MacRae’s way and certainly not Edmund Hockridge’s way. I shall just have to keep plunking the line out on the piano until it finally sinks in properly.

So there I was, the second time I’ve done this number in rehearsals (and only three days after I first rehearsed it with the director and musical director). I sang the line, which wasn’t perfect but wasn’t off key, and heard a voice at the side of the room saying “that was nearly right.”  It was the oldest member of the ensemble. I felt like turning round and telling him that I was well aware of its ‘nearly’ status, that I was struggling with it and would do my best to reach his standards of perfection in every rehearsal. I felt like making a similar comment the next time he had to sing. I felt like deflating like a tired old balloon, my confidence in the number punctured. But I didn’t. I carried on with the song, though I fluffed the next bit of business due to having been pulled out of my train of thought by his comment. I gathered momentum again and continued to the end, to be greeted by a cheer from the rest of the cast. That was lovely, unnecessary and heartwarming. A little later, a couple of the ladies in the cast were angry when they realised that I’d heard the man’s comment. They expressed the opinion that his words were completely out of line, and thought I should have stuck my fingers up at him, but I’m a terribly refined young man, so that had not crossed my mind. I am do pour everything I have into the number, and the comments I’ve received suggest that it’s showing in a good way, which is very exciting.

Less exciting is what happens after I finish the song. Both times I’ve really done it as if in performance, it has had an unexpected side effect. A huge headache, of the sort that makes me feel as though the back of my head is about to explode. The feeling lasts for a few minutes and is horrible – though not as horrible, and certainly not as messy, as it would be if my head really did explode. It’s probably worth it to give the best performance I can, but it’s also strange and perturbing. I don’t recall getting any singing-related headaches before, not even belting out the first tenor parts in Carmina Burana or Rutter’s Gloria, which both reach into higher parts of my range than ‘Soliloquy’. A little research suggests that it’s a result of being an untrained singer, and thus not knowing how best to control my voice. I had best remedy that.

Having experienced discouragement, annoyance, encouragement and pain within a few short minutes, I was then paid another big compliment by the ensemble (who, it has to be said, have to work a heck of a lot harder in this show than I do). During the coffee break, a group apparently accosted the poor director and said they were unhappy with the end of the show. Why? Because they thought I should be out front on my own receiving applause for my hard work. Now, I hate curtain calls. I find them embarrassing and awkward. But that was incredibly touching to hear. I left the rehearsal feeling as though I was floating. Believe me, people involved with shows don’t normally complain because somebody else is in the spotlight too little. Quite the opposite, in fact. To know that my talented co-performers esteem me enough to ask that a fuss is made of me at the curtain call is absolutely incredible and strangely humbling.

It was a strange rehearsal for me, emotionally. I suspect it’s one that I’ll remember for some time. Standing in for ensemble members is a lot of fun, singing the songs is a joy, but the mutual respect, support and encouragement top everything else.  Perhaps I’m just letting my ego get the better of me, but the evening’s actions made me happy.  Rehearsals can be funny old things, but sometimes, just sometimes, they can be uplifting.

Reviewing Rodgers – 1: Manhattan

The first big song hit for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a ditty called ‘Manhattan’, which made a big splash when it was included in the first edition of the Garrick Gaieties in 1925, a revue which originated as a benefit performance for the Theatre Guild.  It had been written three years earlier for a musical called Winkle Town, but that particular show never saw the light of day so the song rested dormant until its big discovery.  It wasn’t Rodgers’ first song, not by a long way, since he had been publishing some of his work since 1917, but it was the song that made ‘Rodgers and Hart’ household names for the first time and launched them on to a series of hits over the next few years.  Everyone was singing it, and an incredible number of people have recorded it since – from Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington to Anne Bancroft and Rod Stewart.  But what makes this song so special?

Well, firstly the music, which has a delightful bounce which is incredibly catchy.  It has an incredibly laid-back tune which captures the feel of strolling along without a care in the world and simply exudes joy.  Like many of Arthur Sullivan’s tunes, as well, it allows the lyric to be heard clearly, which is important as the words do not repeat other than in the last few words of each refrain (“We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy!”).  It’s instantly recognisable from just a few notes of the refrain, which probably contributed to its initial hit status – catchy music spreads faster than a virus.

The lyrics, though, are what make the song for me, and yet I only recently realised how clever they are.  We tend to accept the song on face value, a pleasant little number about a courting couple enjoying spending time in New York rather than going off on an adventurous holiday.  But close attention to the lyrics tells a different story.  From the most familiar refrain (the first), we get the following lines:

It’s very fancy
On old Delancey
Street, you know.
The subway charms us so
When balmy breezes blow
To and fro.

What a charming image.  Or is it?  Balmy breezes on the subway?   They’re singing about the gusts of air that assault the platforms as the trains arrive and depart.  Breezes certainly, but not particularly balmy or at all pleasant.  Other highlights of their wanderings in Manhattan include a futile attempt to cross a busy road and eventual arrest.  And yet they seem quite content.  Is this a song that show us love can make the best of a bad thing, or is it a satirical swipe at the island of Manhattan?  Probably a little of both, with perhaps the emphasis on the latter. 

Whichever it is, Rodgers and Hart followed it in the next year’s Garrick Gaieties with ‘Mountain Greenery’, a song which expresses much the same notions about a countryside retreat, including the joys of collecting wood and encountering mosquitoes.  The pair seem to be having fun with the conventions of the love song – each song works beautifully as a romantic duet (or solo, which is how they tend to be recorded), while simultaneously poking fun at the locale in which the amorous couples are located.  As they sing, these lovers can turn even dirty, dangerous Manhattan into an “isle of joy”.  And Rodgers and Hart could turn this idea into a hit song which has survived for over eighty years.

Reviewing Rodgers – 0: The Beginning

A new series for the new year, stemming from an idea that has been percolating for some time. Richard Rodgers, famous as both …and Hart and …and Hammerstein, left behind a rich legacy of songs and shows, some of which endure, while others fade quietly away. My intention, at least once a month, is to focus on one aspect of his work at a time, including each of his eleven collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II from Oklahoma! in 1943 to The Sound of Music in 1959. Individual songs, shows, films, themes, whatever seems apt or interesting and in no particular order.

Rodgers helped to redefine musical theatre with landmark shows such as On Your Toes, Pal Joey, Oklahoma! and Carousel, each of which contained innovations which pushed the genre in new directions. He also wrote the music for some of the most enduring songs of the twentieth century – ‘Blue Moon’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’, ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’ and dozens more. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a composer that I admire, with a body of work which I (mostly) enjoy very much, spanning some sixty years between his first and last published songs. He’s also a composer who is very much on my mind at present, as I immerse myself in his music prior to playing him on stage.  A love of Richard Rodgers may hardly be original (though perhaps slightly unusual in one who has not quite turned 30), but one thing I hope to demonstrate along the way is that he could be surprisingly unconventional, given that we now associate his most famous musicals with a sort of safe, middle-class theatricality.

And so this post is only a beginning, a signal that there is more to come. But the beginning is, as I’m sure we all know, a very good place to start.

A trio of musical treats

Recently, I’ve made three trips to three different theatres (in two different towns) to see three very different shows.  From a classic to a new piece, from a star vehicle to an ensemble piece, they offered very different pleasures.  None of them were perfect, but none of them were a waste of time or money either.  I’m probably not all that hard to please if you throw a musical at me, but I think that all three were definitely enjoyable.

The first was by far the strangest, being Thatcher the Musical! (exclamation mark essential, and yes, it really does have a website, which includes a couple of sound samples).  Continue reading

Rodgers and Hammerstein – at last

It seems to me that Rodgers and Hammerstein are rather under-rated these days.  People tend to pass their shows off as trite, dated, old-fashioned or twee.  Well, either that or assume they wrote everything from Anything Goes to Fiddler on the Roof, and only gave up when Andrew Lloyd Webber came on the scene and wrote all the new shows.  Both views are, in my considered opinion, absolute rubbish.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: