Kathryn Grayson singing “Beauty,” by Harry Warren and Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli, from the end of Ziegfeld Follies (1946), has always been one of my all-time favorite moments from musicals. I have never not been thrilled by it. Grayson could be square, but combine her with a piece of material like this, and considerations of squareness and hipness go out the window.
With the news today that Kathryn Grayson has passed into another sphere, this magical piece of musical filmmaking takes on new resonance.
You might not think Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman, playing a serial throat-slasher and a pederast judge, singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Pretty Women” from the film version of Sweeney Todd, would juxtapose well with a montage of Disney heroines, but — well, see for yourself.
The magic goes beyond clever editing. I think it’s that Disney (and his disciples) understood that the archetype of the animated heroine should evoke the beautiful way our mothers looked to us when we were little, and the visions of love that informed our dreams, and that Sondheim understood that his “demon barber of Fleet Street” was driven by the same angels.
Back in the summer of ’08, I saw (and wrote about) a production of The Music Man at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The production was revelatory to me, because (although I’d seen, as a child, the national touring company starring Forrest Tucker as Professor Harold Hill), my main experience of the show came from the movie. Seeing the show, the real show, that Meredith Willson created the book, music and lyrics for — and which Stratford’s production served so well — gave me an appreciation for Willson’s level of invention. The Music Man is not always remembered as a particularly innovative musical, perhaps because its small-town, 1912 Iowa setting doesn’t immediately put one in mind of “innovation.” The adjective is more often applied to another musical that opened in 1957 just three months before The Music Man, West Side Story. But, without taking anything away from the Bernstein-Sondheim show, it’s possible to appreciate that The Music Man was also unlike any musical that had come before it. The opening number, “Rock Island,” performed by traveling salesmen on a train, isn’t even sung, yet it is music, so rhythmic is the dialogue Willson wrote, and so well does it capture the rhythm of the train that is the number’s setting. And then the show takes off from there. Willson strove to write dialogue so rhythmic it could become music, and song lyrics so conversational they could become speech, so that one could blend into the other with the audience scarcely being aware of the difference.
Two years after The Music Man opened, Willson wrote a book about the experience of creating the show. The show’s birth was not easy. It took years, and many false starts; Willson’s script went through forty drafts in all. Not surprisingly (given the surplus of charm and wit Willson was able to put into The Music Man), the book about the creation is a fun and fascinating read. Titled But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, it went out of print and stayed that way for a long time, but this past summer it came back into print, and if you like musical theater, you should get it and read it.
A few illuminating minutes with Stephen Sondheim, as he describes the genesis of his 1970 masterpiece musical Company:
A big way I got hooked on original Broadway cast albums involves a store that used to exist in Manhattan called The Record Hunter. I grew up in Baltimore. My NY grandmother (my mother’s mother, widowed at 47 and never remarried) would mail me the cast albums of the latest Broadway hits, and they always came shipped from The Record Hunter. I loved getting those 12 X 12, stiff cardboard boxes with The Record Hunter’s label on them.
She lived at 86th and Broadway, so The Record Hunter, on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd, wasn’t necessarily more convenient for her than Sam Goody’s or King Karol. I suspect the reason it was her store of choice was the name! I think she found something clever about it. The idea that they would “hunt” for you, for the unusual record you sought. It would have tickled her particular sense of humor, and she would have wanted to reward them for their intrepidness in the hunt.
More often than not, the records that arrived were for shows I didn’t know about. And that was great. When, as a child, someone sits you down to tell you a story, you don’t expect it to be a story you’ve already heard, and you might be disappointed if it were. Well, each of these albums was a brand new story. I immersed myself in them, imagining the plotlline the songs told, believing in the reality of the characters, constructing scenarios to account for their dreams and ambitions, building stage sets in my mind to show me how the show looked, how it felt, as I listened.
I think my grandmother’s hooking me on cast albums was a quite conscious strategy on her part. On the most obvious level, she wanted to bring me closer to her by sharing an experience with her. (The album was always for a show she’d attended and enjoyed, and, having seen the show alone due to her circumstance, she wanted to recruit an ally in this pleasure, as we all might.) But on a deeper level, she was looking to create another, permanently inescapable bond with her, to make sure I’d never stop thinking about her despite the miles that separated us. She was NY. The shows were NY. The association was unbreakable. Every time I listened to one, she’d know she was in my thoughts. She still is.
Several forces lately have focused my attention on the challenge of staying true to our passions in an unsupportive world.
How do we stay true to our passions in an unsupportive world? Several forces lately have conspired to focus my attention on this question.
An internet mailing list, of which I am a member, is devoted to the discussion of original cast musical theater recordings. Recently a discussion began concerning the members’ experiences as children and teens. When young, did we find friends who shared our love of the great Broadway musicals, the works of sublime genius created by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lerner, Loewe, Loesser, Sondheim, Styne, and their ilk? (Small ilk.) Or did we not? This discussion forced me to examine a truth I hadn’t ever quite acknowledged: that I did not have a single friend, growing up, who listened to this music. How did I keep doing it? Why didn’t I succumb to “peer pressure” and change my tastes to conform with theirs? How did I sustain my love for great Broadway music in the complete absence of positive reinforcement?
I would say that the music itself gave me no choice. Once you listen to it, if you are susceptible to its charms, you discover just how much is going on in it, and most other music seems thin gruel from then on. And that’s part of the answer. But not all of it.
Something has to give you the strength to go on being alone, being interested in the things you’re interested in even if no one else is. In some sense you are like a character in The Twilight Zone who discovers he is the sole inhabitant on earth, or like the astronaut at the end of Kubrick’s 2001 who lives out his days in the absence of a fellow creature. Sure, you derive sustenance from the knowledge that someone out there likes the art you like, because someone is putting out recordings and other people are buying them. You just don’t know any of those people. So you have to be comfortable with being lonely. And the more comfortable you get with it, the more you start, in some sense, to prefer your loneliness. You begin to feel that loneliness is the only way for you to survive, because to join the crowd would be for you to relinquish the essence of who you are. We are what we love.
Now, did I lack for friends who appreciated my interest in musical comedy? No, I had those. When a song parody was needed “to the tune of” some Broadway standard that everyone could sing to, they knew I had a talent to amuse. And I felt they respected my peculiar interest in the musical, in the manner that people often respect someone who sticks to his guns against all odds. And that was certainly a whole lot better than being made a pariah for it. But how different it would have been for me, had I found even one or two boys or girls who actually shared my passion, instead of just acknowledging it. Some of the correspondents on the mailing list reported having been lucky enough to find others like them as children and teens, and it made me wonder how different it would have felt to have lived that alternative adolescence — and how much less used to being alone, and comfortable with it, I might have become.
Mind you, this was in the fifties and sixties, when the Broadway musical was much more a part of the mainstream culture than it is now.
Even more amazing than that I didn’t know a single other child or teen who was into the same music I was? It’s that once into adulthood and a creative advertising career that involved the production of music, some of it in a theater-influenced style, I encountered very few people who shared my passion for the music even then. In my three decades of adult life before the internet, I think I accumulated a grand total of four friends with whom I can have a conversation listing the ways in which Stephen Sondheim is a deity walking among us or how Carousel makes us cry from the first notes coming from the pit in act one.
A lifetime of accretion of knowledge on a subject that very few people know or care anything about can make one seem like a sufferer of Asperger syndrome when the knowledge comes pouring out, observes my friend Jim Dyer. On the other hand, when the specialized knowledge is interesting to people, when they can count on you to know the answer to a question they actually want to know the answer to, the line between “Asperger sufferer” and “fascinating expert” is a thin one.
Here are some words about Asperger syndrome found at Wikipedia:
…restricted and repetitive interests and behavior…intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity…a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a need for privacy or haste to leave.
So yeah, maybe that’s what I’ve got.
All this is by way of preface to my recommending a new book by Steven Suskin on the great Broadway orchestrators. It’s one of those books on such an obviously important subject that one can’t believe it hasn’t been written yet, but nobody did it before Suskin. The sound of Broadway was at least as much the work of orchestrators like Robert Russell Bennett, Don Walker, Robert Ginzler, Sid Ramin and Irv Kostal as it was the work of composers, and now the orchestrators get their due. Suskin writes in satisfying detail not only about what they did and how they did it, but the stylistic traits that distinguished one orchestrator from another. Throughout the book, Suskin acknowledges, in asides, how very few people will be interested in his subject, and also, how very interested those few who are interested will be. And he’s right. For anyone who loves Broadway, being immersed in the book is like being in paradise. As thorough and complete as it is at 565 pages, when one is reading it one wishes it were twice as long as it is. If you are one of the small number of Americans who are into musicals, and you know who you are, you will find it fascinating, even if you have little or no knowledge of technique. (Suskin wrote the book for the non-technical reader; all you need is ears.)
But this whole isolated, socially-awkward, narrowly-shared passion, Asperger thing…it’s a much bigger subject than Broadway musicals. With me, it was that. With you, it’s something else. Something you’ve always been into that, unless you’re very lucky, practically no one else in your “real life” has ever been. Thank goodness for the internet, where we can find more people who share our interests than we may ever have found without it. But what about all those years before the internet? Somehow, and I don’t mean this lightly, we found a way to survive without surrendering what made us special, found a way to remain who we were. Let’s all give ourselves a pat on the back for that, let’s all give ourselves a hug. And hug, virtually, each other.
Just in time for the holidays, here’s another installment in my Great (Hot) Girl Dancers of the Twentieth Century series. The first YouTube contains a twofer of numbers by the great Gwen Verdon in the film version of Damn Yankees, recreating the Lola she originated on Broadway. In the opener, “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” notice how little she moves. By which I mean, notice how little she has to move to create an effect. Small movements this well-calbrated are, I imagine, as difficult (if not more) to pull off than large ones. Every little thing she does is magic.
As a bonus, here’s Gwen before she was Gwen. As Gwyneth Verdon, she was a featured dancer in the Danny Kaye comedy On the Riviera. Here she is, alone, at the beginning of “Rhythm of a New Romance,” although her distinctive voice (one of her best features) is dubbed by Veola Vonn* — possibly because Verdon at this point couldn’t pull off the French accent. (Her real voice can be heard uttering one word, “Gesundheit,” later on in the video.) In every tableau in this long production number, just keep looking for the amazing redhead.
*Dubber info courtesy of the stunningly comprehensive Ray Hagen’s Movie Dubbers List.
In this clip from I Dood It, the phenomenal Eleanor Powell starts out looking just like a living Gil Elvgren, and then goes on to do things with a lasso that you wouldn’t believe. The fun begins around 1:30.
In 1969, at the age of nineteen, my life was changed. That was the year I saw the London cast of the Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises, and a dancer named Donna McKechnie move like crazy in a number called (improbably) “Turkey Lurkey Time.”
She was sex itself. In fact, since I was still a virgin (quaint, I know), watching her dance from my balcony seat was the nearest thing I had yet had to having sex with a living being. I’d still rank it as one of the best.
In her autobiography Time Steps, McKechnie relates how debilitating pain put her out of commission through much of the seventies and eighties — as a direct result of dancing like that. If so, she made a magnificent sacrifice for us all.
You can see what I saw by looking at this clip from the 1968 Tony Awards. (A former Hullabaloo dancer, she had performed the number as part of the original Broadway cast before being exported to London to open the show there.) Give it time to build, and ignore, if you can, the asinine lyric. You won’t be disappointed. (P.S. On older computers, “Turkey Lurkey” may look herky-jerky in this embedded video, in which case, go here to view it directly on YouTube.)
And here’s writer Seth Rudetsky’s funny explication of the clip:
(In event it doesn’t play smoothly for you here, try here.)
Everybody cried when Obama won. (Everybody decent, anyway.) But lately I’ve been crying at all sorts of other things, and Obama is to blame.
When the musical movie version of Hairspray came out, I loved it. (If you don’t believe me, see here.) But it was on the other night on HBO, and I watched it again, and it got me as never before — it made me cry almost nonstop from beginning to end. Hairspray is only nominally about a teenage girl trying to get on a local TV dance show. Its true subject is liberation. Racial liberation, sexual liberation, fat liberation, agoraphobic liberation, and probably three or four other kinds of liberation I can’t think of. Nearly every song in the score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and nearly every dance devised by director-choreographer Adam Shankman, propels this theme single-mindedly — is, at root, about liberation.
When a movie (or other work of art, or real life event) makes you cry, it is never because of a direct, unmediated link between it and your brain’s sob center. There is always a thought in between. The art doesn’t make you cry; the art makes you think a thought, and the thought makes you cry. In this case, the thought was: “These black teens in 1962 were just trying to get on a TV dance show in Baltimore, and now a black man is President.”
Though I was taken aback by my tears when Obama won the election, I didn’t expect the event to sensitize me to so many encounters that have come after. Especially not two whole weeks after. Especially not re-watchings of fun, frothy musicals I’ve already seen. But it has.
I’m going to see the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first-ever production of Porgy and Bess on Friday. I’m going to be a complete mess.