Mercoledi Musicale

Laurent has often said that everything is a Broadway song cue for me – a statement I take exception to vehemently.  Not everything is a Broadway song cue – just most things.

Take for example a recent posting my blog buddy JP over at My Husband and I where the eponymous “I”  lays in bed with his husband Guido and muses on life.  Or I am assuming he was in bed as that seems to be JP’s favourite place for amusing and musing.  But I digress – back to the song cue:  his musings on life, french toast, their new business venture, and their relationship cued a song in the vast catalogue of Broadway songs stored in the Dewey decimal system that I call my mind:  Life Is!  It’s the introduction  to Zorbaan 1968 Kander and Ebb musical version of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and Michael Cacoyannis film.

There was a time when hit (and not so hit) Broadway shows toured often with, if not the original stars, stars of equal renowned.  When they showed up at the Royal Alexandra or the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto my friend Charlie and I would head down to see them – in the case of Juliet Prowse in Sweet Charity at least twice as I recall.  And I have a feeling we may have seen Zorba more than once.  When we liked a show we liked a show.

Though when it premiered  the show had been referred to more than once as “the poor man’s Fiddler on the Roof” it was reworked and recast for the road – John Raitt was the Zorba and the great Chita Rivera sang and danced the Chorus Leader.  Some of the darkness of the original had been erased but the wry acceptance of events good and bad remained in many of the songs.  Particularly in Life Is!

The show opens in a taverna where a group of people are drinking, playing music, dancing, and talking.  Someone suggests they tell a story – another suggests the story of Zorba.  When ask what it’s about the Chorus Leader (Lorraine Serabian of the original cast) says that it’s about that passage from birth to death – LIFE!

So here’s to JP, Guido, the old cafe, the new cafe, french toast in bed, and LIFE.

On this day in 1875:  Aristides wins the first Kentucky Derby.



Mercoledi Musciale

Jerome Kern – Part I

crookprogramA young friend here in Charlottetown comes from a culture that does not include the tradition of musicals as theatrical entertainment but he has fallen in love with the art form.  However like many young people (and not a few older folk) for him musicals begin perhaps with Phantom or Les Miz but even as late as Hamilton.  Most of them are unaware of the wealth of music that goes back, if stories are to be believed,  to the first “book musical” on Broadway: The Black Crook in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden.  And of course though Hamilton is viewed as a “landmark” in the American Musical – there have been so many other landmarks in the ensuing 150 years since Rita Sangalli did her arabesques at Broadway and Prince .  At  least two of those landmarks can be attributed to one composer – Jerome Kern.

jeromekern1In the later part of the 1800s and early into the 1900s the focus was on extravaganzas (The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Toyland), operettas from Mittel-Europe, imports from England and formulae song and dance shows tailored to the talents of big stars like George M. Cohen.  Often more “American” numbers by young composers such as Kern (right), Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin  were interpolated into the scores of the imported shows and just as often they were uncredited.  Kern was to change that in 1914 when his “They Didn’t Believe Me” (composed to lyrics by Herbert Reynolds) became the hit song in The Girl from Utah.   The duo demanded and got full credit for what was the only number that anyone would ever remember from what was otherwise a very unremarkable score.  It says something of this wedding of what has been called “forthright sentiment and refined romance” that it can still be heard a century later.  And it made Kern the hottest composer in America!

ba82012c551e88ed39933840c2887748The next year (1915) that popularity allowed Kern along with writer Guy Bolton and eventually P. G. Wodehouse to introduce a series of shows which became known as the Princess Theatre Musicals.  Named after the tiny (226 seats) venue they were produced in, these small scale shows had a natural feel to them, the numbers came out of the situations, and moved the plot forward.  The characters were believable and they  sang and danced to the music of Jerome Kern.  It created a new sort of musical – a more American musical if you will.  After the initial success of N0body Home in 1915 five more of this small sophisticated musicals were to follow and as with anything that was a financial success on the Great White Way so did the imitations.

Here’s that breakthrough song from the otherwise unknown score of The Girl From Utah; there are many covers of this song out there but I found this version by Edward Woodward particularly lovely.  Edward Woodward??  Yes you’ll recognize the face I’m sure from various British TV series but he was also a highly regarded classical actor and well-known in the UK as a singer.

Over the years Kern was to work with many lyricists: Woodehouse, Bolton, Otto Harbach, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Fields.  However his most frequent collaborator was Oscar Hammerstein II;  their first show together in 1925 was the Marilyn Miller vehicle Sunny and the partnership flourished until 1939 with Kern’s last Broadway show  – Very Warm For MaySadly, though many acknowledged it as one of Kern’s finest scores, the show was a flop and only lasted 59 performances.  However as with any Kern score there was bound to be several numbers that became standards.  My own favourite – perhaps of all the Kern songs – is the haunting “All the Things You Are”.   There are so many versions of it out there but I find the original scoring for quartet and chorus the most beautiful.  It also brings back memories of the first time I heard this version in Ottawa sitting with a small group of friends in front of a fireplace on a lazy winter afternoon.


After their initial collaboration on the frothy Sunny for Flo Ziegfeld Hammerstein and Kern were to turn their attention to a more serious work.  One that was to be the next landmark work in the history of the American musical.   Show Boat!

… to be continued.

On this day in 1896:  An X-ray generating machine is exhibited for the first time by H. L. Smith.


Mercoledi Musicale

This poster is listed by illustrator E. Joan Lee as a student project.  I don’t know if Soulpepper used it or not but it really does capture the spirit of the play.

One of my favourite Christmastide movies i.e. a movie I enjoy watching at Christmas as opposed to a movie with a Christmas theme is Ernst Lubitsch‘s The Shop Around the Corner.  If ever a film showed the Lubitsch touch it is this simple tale of two people who were destined for each other but don’t know it.  I knew that the screenplay had been based on Illatszertár (Parfumerie) a relatively obscure play by the Hungarian playwright Miklós László.  I was a bit surprised when I discovered that a production by Soulpepper (the best repertory theatre on the continent in my not so humble opinion) in 2009 was only the second time it had been performed in North America.  I was in Italy at the time and recall wishing I could see it – the reviews were unanimous in their praise and it had played to sold out houses.  Once I returned to Canada I did not get down to Toronto for the 2011 or 2013 revivals but finally last year I was able to combine it with A Christmas Carol, another Soulpepper Christmas favourite, and a visit with my favourite (well okay only but still my favourite) niece.

I wasn’t to be disappointed with either Soulpepper production or a lovely afternoon spent with FN.  Though the movie is a delight László’s play is far richer in characterization; Lubitsch focuses primarily on the two lovers but the play fleshes out the other employees in Hammerschmidt’s shop and their stories.   It was a glorious bon-bon filled with funny and touching performances by the entire company and worth the trip.

slm-220x300And the delight I felt in finally seeing Parfumerie  led me to revisit She Love Me the 1963 musical version by Joe Masteroff with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.  It is a show that has always been considered a cult musical – small scaled without big elaborate song and dance numbers, at times bordering on being an operetta.  Never the less it has had successful productions in London and well-received revivals in New York as recently as this past year.  A new production opened this past week in London again to ecstatic reviews: in The Guardian the reviewer calls it a “macaroon musical: light and crisp and colourful.”  Which perfectly sums up, for me at least, the original play, the movie and the musical.

Now I did say that it isn’t a Christmas movie/play/musical but it reaches its denouement on Christmas Eve and being about a shop those days before Christmas break into a frenzy the closer they get.  And to my mind Harnick and Bock catch it perfectly – I think we’ve all been there; and done that!

Twelve days to Christmas,
Twelve days to Christmas,
Plenty of time to do your Christmas shopping
These are the people who shop in time, shop in time, plenty of time
These are the people with time to spare who shop at their convenience

Twelve days to Christmas,
Twelve days to Christmas,
Look at the way they do their Christmas shopping
They can go shopping and still remain calm and sedate
These are the people we envy and the people that we hate!

Thank you, Thank you
We’ll call again
We’ll call again, thank you
holly-break1Nine days to Christmas,
Nine days to Christmas
Still enough time to do your Christmas shopping
These are the people who shop in time, shop in time, still enough time
Sensible people who organize the time at their disposal
Nine days to Christmas,
Nine days to Christmas,
Still enough time to do your Christmas shopping
These are the people who plan their days wisely and well
These are the people who shop in time, and they can go to hell!

Cashiers: Thank you, thank you, please call again, do call again, thank you
Customers: Thank you, thank you, we’ll call again, we’ll call again, thank you
holly-break1Four days to Christmas
Four days to Christmas
Just enough time to do your Christmas shopping
These are the people who shop in time, just in time, barely in time
These are the people who calculate with clinical precision
Four days to Christmas
Four days to Christmas
These are the folks who never waste a second
Full of a chilly efficiency
Loaded with gall
Never too early and never late

Cashiers: Thank you, thank you, please call again, do call again, thank you
Customers: Thank you, thank you, we’ll call again, we’ll call again, thank you
holly-break1THE TWENTY FOURTH?!
One day to Christmas
One day to Christmas
Not enough time to do our Christmas shopping
We’re not the shopple who peeped in time
We’re not the sheeple who popped in time
We’re not the people who shopped in time
Shopped in time, not enough time
We are the people who always wait until it’s much too late, OH!
One day to Christmas
One day to Christmas
How will we ever do our Christmas shopping?
Why did we ever delay so long, who can recall?
Some of the family may not get a Christmas gift at all!

Cashiers: Thank you, thank you, please call again, do call again, thank you
Customers: Thank you, thank you, we’ll call again, we’ll call again, thank you

Merry Christmas!

On this day in 1812:The French invasion of Russia comes to an end as the remnants of the Grande Armée are expelled from Russia.

Lunedi Lunacy

Back in 1950s the Players’ Theatre Club in Villiers St – in the arches under Charing Cross Station – were best known for their recreation of old style Music Hall and early Pantomimes. A revolving group of singers, dancers and comedians such as Hattie Jacques,  Peter Ustinov, May Hallett, John Hewer and Ian Carmichael and host of other West End names-to-be of the period entertained in the raucous and ribald manner of their Edwardian predecessors.  But in April 1953 the Club broke new ground by moving forward from the early 1900s all the way to the 1920s when composer/lyricist Sandy Wilson presented them with The Boy Friend.  A gentle tongue-in-cheeky poke at the chiefly mindless but wildly melodic musicals of the 1920s.

Geoffry Hibbert assures Dilys Laye that “It’s Never
Too Late” in the 1954 Broadway production.

All the cliches were there – the phony French accents, the rich young hero in disguise as a poor delivery boy, the titled old lech and his battleaxe wife, even the brash American – with all the required numbers – love duets, Charlestons, novelty numbers and comic pieces.  It soon transferred to the West End and played 2082 performance making a star of its leading lady Anne Rogers.  The Broadway run was somewhat less – 485 performances – but it did prove a stepping stone for its new leading lady – Julie Andrews was spotted by the producers of a musical that was in the works and was offered the role of Eliza Doolittle in the upcoming Learner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady.

Its a show I’ve always loved – I saw it first at the old Music Fair summer tent theatre with the New York Madame Dubonnet and Percival Browne (Ruth Altman and Eric Brown).  And I shamefacedly admit that I actually appeared in a production of it one summer as Tony Broadhurst, the young hero – don’t ask!  Let me just say that we had a campy director-choreographer named Julian who kept insisting that I “show your profile, dear; just like Ivor Novello.”  It would have helped if I actually had a profile like the lovely Mr Novello.

One of my favourite numbers is one of those novelty duets:  madcap flapper Dulcie has become disillusioned with the empty young men she’s encountered and the venerable, if ever so lecherous,  Lord Broadhurst thinks he may have the solution.  The recording is from the original Broadway cast with Dilys Laye and Geoffry Hibbert – impersonated here by Billy Barkhurst and Steven Widerman of The Puppet Company.

Unfortunately the success of both The Boy Friend and the popularity of Miss Andrews spawned two highly forgettable movies – Kenn Russell’s unfunny mutilation of the original and the very long and equally unfunny Thoroughly Modern Millie created as a vehicle to star Miss Andrews when they couldn’t get the rights to the original.  And sadly for Sandy Wilson a sequel guying the musicals of the 1930s was as unsuccessful as the movies.  One of those occasions when theatrical magic only struck once.

April 14 – 1828: Noah Webster copyrights the first edition of his dictionary.

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Mercoledi Musicale

In my post yesterday about my first visit to Stratford I mentioned that the Beatrice for that production of Much Ado About Nothing was the Scottish actress Eileen Herlie.  Miss Herlie had a fascinating career.  Though 16 years younger than Olivier she played Gertrude to his Hamlet in his 1948 film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.  She was to repeat the role in the 1964 Broadway outing with Richard Burton – though at least this time she was 7 years older than her son.  That famous production was directed by John Gielgud who had directed her previously in the West End in Medea.  She was a member of Gielgud’s classic company in his season at the Lyric Hammersmith and played frequently on the West End.

Fame – or infamy depending on your point of view –  came early in her career: in 1946 she appeared as the Queen (left with co-star James Donald) in John Cocteau’s exercise in intellectual melodrama, The Eagle Has Two Heads.  As the Queen of an unnamed Ruritanian country she performed what was one the longest speeches in the history of the English stage.  Ronald Duncan’s translation contained some 2,982 words; her twenty-one minute tirade ranged from memories of her dead husband to an invitation to a young poet, who resembles her dead beloved, to assassinate her.  It was a performance that left opinion divided and very few on the fence – it was either a tour de force of acting or a theatrical pony trick.

Herlie was to divide critics, and audiences, throughout her varied career.  Harold Hobson adored her but she was the victim of Kenneth Tynan’s acid tongue on more than one occasion.  Her Medea was memorably sent up by Hermione Gingold as “the grreat tradddgic awktress”.   A transfer to Broadway of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker brought her to North America in 1956 and she stay there until her death in 2008.  During that time, in New York and on tour,  she played classics, modern (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), comedy, melodrama and musical comedy.

Eileen Herlie in  publicity photo for her
role as Myrtle Fargate in All My Children.
She was to play the role for 32 years.

Musical comedy?  Yes, though she really didn’t have much of a singing voice the one thing Eileen Herlie had was presence.  In 1960 she held her own against Jackie Gleason and won a Tony nomination for Take Me Along, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Ah Wilderness.  Two years later she appeared with Ray Bolger in the ill-fated All American.  With a script half-written by the young Mel Brooks – he failed to delivery act 2 and director Joshua Logan had to take over – and a story tailored to the talents of a fading star the show didn’t stand much a chance of success.  But what it did have was Eileen Herlie and a lovely song that was to become a standard, Charles Strouse-Lee Adams’  Once Upon A Time.

Though it has been recorded by everyone from The Four Tops to Tony Bennett there is something quite touching and lovely about Bolger and Herlie’s delivery on the original cast album.  Neither of them had great voices but they, and to my mind particularly Herlie, bring to it an aching melancholy of young love past, perhaps lessons learned and maybe even a quiet acceptance of the way life has turned out. 

In 1976 Eileen Herlie all but deserted the stage for the world of television soap opera.  She was to play the role of Myrtle Fargate on All My Children until three months before her death in 2008 at the age of 90.

As I said earlier – her’s was a fascinating career.

May 8 – 1886: Pharmacist John Pemberton first sells a carbonated beverage named “Coca-Cola” as a patent medicine.

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