Mercoledi Musicale

A site I belong to celebrates musicals – chiefly those that have been forgotten – and this time of year many of the posts highlight the glory days of summer stock.  Those halcyon days when cities and towns around North America had tents, converted barns, or outdoor theatres with small resident companies of singers, dancers and directors who were joined by a visiting “star” in a musical (or sometimes play) that had been a popular a season or two earlier in New York, or perhaps a time-honoured operetta, one of the Rogers and Hammerstein biggies or even Gilbert and Sullivan.

The only picture I could find of the Music Fair tent was a drawing from a local newspaper.

In Toronto we had the Music Fair out at the Dixie Plaza in Mississauga from 1958 to 1960.  It was a tent theatre connected to the Melody Fair in North Tonawanda, New York.  A company would play two weeks at one theatre (while rehearsing another show) then head across the border for two weeks in the sister house.  Mario Bernardi, who went on to conduct at Sadler’s Wells and founded the National Arts Centre Orchestra*, and John Fenwich, who conducted and composed at the Charlottetown Festival, were the young conductors; Zachery Zolov, principal choreographer at the MET, was dancer director.  In the chorus was a very young Victor Braun who went on to a major European opera career – it was a invaluable training ground.

The first show I saw was in early July 1958 – Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings with Rae Allen – a name well known to my friends at the aforementioned site.  I was hooked. Every second Saturday for the next three summers I would walk – the best I can tell about 5 kilometres (3.5 miles) – via the shoulder of the Queen Elizabeth Highway (try that now!!!!) to catch the matinee. As well as a raft of musicals with known Broadway performers such as Ms Allen, Gretchen Wyler, and Nancy Andrews I got to see Eve Arden in Goodbye Charlie, Red Buttons in Teahouse of the August Moon, James Garner in John Loves Mary, Jill Corey and Roddy McDowell in Meet Me in St Louis, Dorothy Collins in South Pacific, Jeannie Carson in Finnan’s Rainbow, and almost Genevieve in Can-Can.

Can-CanI say almost because back in 1959 the gamine  Mlle Genevieve was touring in the Cole Porter musical as La Môme Pistache and I was set to go to the last Saturday matinee.  She had become popular on the late night Jack Paar show with her fractured English and in cabaret with her Gaelic way with a song.  Though the show had a less than great book I loved the original cast recording with all those wonderful Porter songs: C’est Magnifique, It’s Alright with Me, I Love Paris and my own favourite Allez-vous En.

Which leads me to today’s Mercoledi Musicale.

Sadly I never got to see her sing it in person.  Midway through the second week Genevieve made her exit up the aisle, tripped on an electrical cable and broke her ankle.  In summer stock there were often no understudies to speak of so the rest of the run was cancelled. It was to be another thirty years before I would have a chance to see Can-Can.

In 1988 Chita Rivera and the Radio City Rockettes toured a version that played the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  And it involved another broken leg story.  But first here’s Chita and the Rockettes doing the can-can from that production.  It was filmed during a performance at a theatre-in-the-round which accounts for the odd camera angle.

Watching the fabulous Chita it’s hard to imagine that in 1986 she had been involved in a major car accident.  She broke her left leg in twelve places, and it took eighteen screws and two braces to mend the breaks.  Two years later she was touring in a major role and doing that cartwheel-split combo seven times a week!  A Broadway legend indeed!

*I once mentioned to Mr Bernardi that I remembered him from those Music Fair days and he seemed less than thrilled at the reminder.

I thought I’d make a list of the wonderful (to my young eyes at least) shows I saw over and above those I’ve already mentioned: Song of Norway, Happy Hunting, Oklahoma, The Boy Friend, The King and I, Brigadoon, Bells Are Ringing, Most Happy Fella, The Student Prince, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance,

On this day in 1886: The first scheduled Canadian transcontinental train arrives in Port Moody, British Columbia.

Mercoledi Musicale

ma un po ‘tardi

Late again ….  but to be honest as anyone who has been retired for any length of time can tell you the days start losing their sequence and meaning after a while.

Given that on a grand level the world seems to be a confused and confusing place these days I think we could all use a bit of a musical pick me up.  Something to set our feet tapping and maybe, just maybe, make the old zygomaticus major do its work.  I know nothing makes mine draw my mouth superiorly and posteriorly to allow for a smile than this little dance tune by Jacques Offenbach.

Now tell me that at the least your toes weren’t tapping and that maybe there was even a slight activation of your zygomaticus major?

On this day in 1907: Norway grants women the right to vote.

Mercoledi Musicale

Paramount “The Popular Race Record” issued this ad in 1927 for Ma Rainey’s most recent recording.

During my recent trip to Toronto (more about that tomorrow I hope) I caught the last preview of a new production of August Wilson‘s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Soulpepper.  It was the piece that brought Wilson to the forefront of American playwrights back in 1984 and was the first of his ten Century or American Cycle to reap critical acclaim.  Written out of sequence the plays cover the black experience in American from 1900 to 1999.  It is also referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle as in nine of the ten plays the action is set in that city’s Hill District.  The one exception is Ma Rainey which is set in a recording studio in Chicago in the 1920s.

Strangely Fletcher Henderson on piano and Charlie Dixon on banjo are missing from the credits on this 1941 reissue of this 1924 recording.

Perhaps it is the same studio where she set down many of the ninety-four sides she recorded between 1923 and 1928 for Paramount Records.  Since the records were made for the “race market” Paramount, despite their claim in the advertisement for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,  didn’t use the best recording equipment  or issue high quality releases from her sessions.  Unfortunately as a result what we have on record doesn’t reflect the full power and scope of her voice.  But there is more than ample evidence to justify them advertising her as “The Mother of the Blues”.

By 1927 a new form of jazz was starting to become popular and Ma Rainey’s style of blues wasn’t selling as well as it did. Paramount terminated her contract in 1928 after she had set down 20 sides with Georgia Thomas Dorsey the great father of Black gospel music. In his younger days he was known as one of the premiere blues pianists. Here’s Ma Rainey with Mr Dorsey and blues guitarist Tampa Red doing one of the numbers from that 1928 session.

I’ve been working on a review of the Soulpepper production which I hope to have posted on Friday.  In the meantime let’s hear the number that gave Wilson’s play it’s name. Unfortunately none of the session musicians are listed in Her Georgia Band – a collective that included at one time or another many of the great blues and jazz musicians.

On this day in 1951: The first regularly scheduled transatlantic flights begin between Idlewild Airport in New York City and Heathrow Airport in London, operated by El Al Israel Airlines.


Mercoledi Musicale

Deo-gratiasI am been whinging over the past few years about the changes that the CBC, our national broadcaster, have made to their classical programming.  What was once an eclectic variety of music presented by people with individuality and character has been stripped of all personality and the repertoire has become narrower and narrower.    As much as I love Prokofiev hearing the suite from his Romeo and Juliet four times in one month is a bit OTT.  And yes it is some sort of Leonard Bernstein year no doubt some cause for celebration but he did write things other than West Side Story and some it may even be worth hearing.

Imagine my surprise this afternoon when a choral piece by Johannes Ockeghem showed up to break the never ending parade of “much beloved” classics.  This 36 part canon is one of the great works of 15th century polyphony.   The simple phrase Deo Gratias (Thanks be to God) is sung by nine voices as four canons ergo 36 voices.  It is much like the old campfire rounds that we sung at Boy Scouts though a trifle more complex than our simple “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.

I find that there is a building tension in this version by Huelgas Ensemble conducted by  Paul Van Nevel that is resolved in that final fading away of the last Deo Gratias.

On this day in 1952: The world’s first ever jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet 1 makes its maiden flight, from London to Johannesburg.

Mercoledi Musicale

A friend posted this list of British Expressions – most of which I knew but it was the last one that struck me:  I’m off to Bedfordshire.   I said something similar for years now and I was trying to recall where I first heard it.   I believe it was in an Alan Bennett play called Forty Years On with a Nanny putting a young lad to bed.  Other gems from that scene including warnings about sitting on hot pipes,getting piles and your insides falling out; going out without your wellies on (it will make you go blind the way it did St Paul on the Damascus Road!); and policeman cutting “your little tail off” if you don’t lie down and go to sleep.  Ah the good old fashioned way of bringing up children:  terrorize them!


The “Bedfordshire”phrase also reminded another friend of an old Vera Lynn record. It was the 19 year old’s first commercial recording in 1936. I’ve always been a big fan of Dame Vera’s but I don’t honestly ever recall hearing this one before.

The etymology of the idiom “up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire” is well explained in this entry at The Phrase Finder.  Though the Phrase Finder suggests that it’s rather “twee” given my age I find it rather sweet – particularly as sung by Dame Vera.

Thanks to Olin and MJ for inspiring this one.

On this day in 1915: World War I: The Battle of Gallipoli begins: The invasion of the Turkish Gallipoli Peninsula by British, French, Indian, Newfoundland, Australian and New Zealand troops, begins with landings at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles.