Friday, December 31, 2004

Great Recordings That Miss The Point

I can't say much about Artie Shaw that hasn't been said -- the man swung a mean clarinet and married more beautiful women than I'll ever even get to meet -- but there's one thing I'll say: his signature recording, "Begin the Beguine," is a classic recording that almost completely misses the point of the song. Cole Porter's song is a sensuous, passionate Latin dance number. Shaw turned it into a chipper swing number; he made it a hit by taking the Beguine out of it. It's like that Lawrence Welk recording where he played the William Tell Overture in polka time; it just misses the point. And yet Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" is a terrific recording, proving that a great popular song is almost infinitely durable and malleable: twist it out of shape, change the style and the rhythm and everything, but the strength of the melody will still be as great as ever.

(Milton Babbitt once wrote that the difference between a traditional melody and the melodies of avant-garde composers is that traditional melodies retain a recognizable shape even if you change the rhythm and phrasing and even some of the notes, whereas, say, a melody in the twelve-tone system is unrecognizable if you make such big changes. That's why we will never see a jazz-improv album based on the melodies of Pierre Boulez.)

Anyway, what are some other examples of great recordings that miss the point of the songs they purportedly contain?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

All He Cared About Was Love

Jerry Orbach is dead. Damn it.

Most of the obituaries will no doubt emphasize his "Law and Order" work over his stage work, even though he was perhaps even more successful on stage than on TV (he generally chose good projects, winding up playing the male lead in hits like Carnival, Promises Promises, and Chicago). Not that that's a bad thing to emphasize; screen work, unlike stage work, is permanent -- in the case of "Law and Order," eternal and inescapable -- and most people will know him for having been so very, very, very good as Lennie Briscoe. His coolness sustained the show through years of rotating assistant detectives, assistant Hot Female Assistant D.A.s (tm) and Sam Waterston's self-righteous pontificating. Orbach was a brilliant performer and he will be very sadly missed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Notes On Notes On Camp

I never had very strong feelings about the work of Susan Sontag, though others I know liked her work very much. Her most famous essay, Notes On Camp, always struck me as one of those early '60s attempts to make pop culture fandom "respectable." That is, as people were growing more and more fond of older popular culture -- increasingly seeing, say, an old movie as something enduring, rather than a relic of its time -- there had to be some kind of intellectual justification for this fondness, some kind of excuse for wanting to write about this stuff. The term "camp" was one of those justifications: we're not really taking this stuff seriously, we just like the surface style, the "sensibility of failed seriousness."

The problem with this, first of all, is that a lot of what was drafted into the "camp" camp was not really distinguished by failed seriousness; it just looked that way thirty years later. Sontag writes: "Genuine Camp -- for instance, the numbers devised for the Warner Brothers musicals of the early thirties (42nd Street; The Golddiggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of 1937; etc.) by Busby Berkeley -- does not mean to be funny." Well, that's a matter of opinion; I'd say that Berkeley's outlandish gimmicks and nutty commentaries on the subjects of the songs he staged (putting everyone in money costumes for "We're In the Money," etc.) show a lot of deliberate humor and awareness of their own silliness. And Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, which she includes at the head of her "canon of camp," is one of the most self-conscious, deliberately silly and stylized novels ever written; there's not a bit of that "private zany experience" that Sontag treasures, because the zaniness is all consciously built into the work.

Claiming to see unconscious humor or weirdness in works that are deliberately funny or weird is part of the tendency to assume that past times were less sophisticated than our own. If you assume that people of a previous generation couldn't have understood irony or self-conscious humor. Thus it's easy to recognize a then-recent work -- like Beat the Devil -- as deliberately campy, but it's harder to recognize that maybe the people who made the so-called camp classics also knew exactly what they were doing, and that audiences of a previous generation were sophisticated enough to pick this stuff up. The "camp" aesthetic implies that many works have a hidden meaning or hidden value that only the sophisticated can see, because in fact it's a meaning that's unintentional; the sophisticated make that meaning up for themselves. This can be worthwhile, but I think it's more worthwhile to try and let go of patronizing assumptions about old pop culture and mass culture in general, and just try to enjoy things for what they are... whatever that may be.

The definitive put-down of "camp" was in a Mad magazine parody of the '60s Batman series, which ends with "Bats-man" telling "Sparrow" why their show is so successful:

BATS-MAN: For years, networks tried to reach hip viewers with intelligent programming like The Defenders and Playhouse 90. But then they stumbled onto an important discovery: give the hip crowd garbage and they'll call it "camp" and eat it up!

SPARROW: Holy Nielsen! You mean the swingers are really squarer than the squares!

Monday, December 27, 2004

Grassroots Action

From the plus ca change... file: the 1901 hit play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, written by Clyde Fitch, features a longish if pointless scene about the members of a society called the "Anti-French Literature League," who have gathered signatures to shut down a production they don't like. Granted, the play takes place in the 1870s, and the production is of La Traviata (the heroine's an opera singer), but otherwise, it could be one of those field pieces from The Daily Show where some fringe organization is protesting some movie or TV show... here's an excerpt from the exchange between group leader Mrs. Stonington, and the heroine, Aurelia (a young Ethel Barrymore):

MRS. STONINGTON: It is stated in the papers that you intend to make your debutt in a piece called Traviatter, which, I am given to understand by a number of the members of our League who have read the book, is the French drammer, La Dame aux Camelias.

AURELIA: The papers and the League members are quite right.

MRS. STONINGTON: I am told the heroine is a -- young person -- no better than she should be, in fact not so good... We want to ask you to make your debutt in some other opera. And we have here a petition to that effect, signed by over six hundred women and school children of Harlem, Brooklyn, and Jersey City -- oh yes, and Williamsburg.

Handing to AURELIA the paper.

AURELIA: THank you so much! What a splendid advertisement!

MRS. STONINGTON: We heard your voice was most beautiful, and a great many of us want to hear you who couldn't go to that opera.

AURELIA: But do you know, when you come right down to the stories of the opera, I don't think there's much choice between them.

MRS. STONINGTON: Oh dear me, yes!

AURELIA: Well, what one would you propose?

MRS. STONINGTON (triumphantly): Faust!

MISS MERRIAM looks transported as she recalls the angels of the final scene.

AURELIA: Oh, but that isn't a goody-goody story by any means!

MRS. STONINGTON: My dear! It's a sweet opera! I remember the beautiful tableau, like the death of little Eva, at the end... the story is so pure.

AURELIA: But do you know what happens between the second and third acts?

MRS. STONINGTON: ...Faust and Marguerite get married.

AURELIA: No, they don't; that's the trouble.

MRS. STONINGTON (staggered): What!!!

AURELIA: They didn't!

MRS. STONINGTON: Bless my soul!...

MISS MERRIAM again pulls MRS. STONINGTON's elbow and motions.

MRS. STONINGTON: You dear thing, how like you!
She wants to know why you don't make your debutt in oratorier. Come along now, do!... The women of America ask you to sing in oratorier!

AURELIA: I'll tell you what I'll do; I'm willing if you can persuade my manager; you see, really, these things are entirely in the hands of Mr. Mapleson.

MRS. STONINGTON: We'll see him at once.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

I Resolve

I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions -- I make, and break, resolutions every single day -- but I have resolved to post more, and I'm starting to keep that resolutions, with two big posts: a post on lyricist Leo Robin, and a review of the third season of King of the Hill, now on DVD. Scroll down and ye shall find.

DVD Review: KING OF THE HILL, Season 3

I have previously noted that I'm a big fan of King of the Hill, so I thought I might as well post a review of the third season, which is coming out on DVD on December 28, and which can be found at amazon if you want to buy it.

One of the things I find odd about King of the Hill is that it was a bigger hit at the beginning than it's been since then. In the first season, it was a genuine phenomenon, getting ratings that sometimes topped those of The Simpsons (which preceded it on Fox), plus magazine covers and tie-in books. The reason I find that odd is that I usually think of KotH as a show that it takes time to get into. I certainly didn't think much of it when I first saw it in 1997, and it took a few episodes before I figured out what they were doing. Most animated sitcoms had tried and failed to copy the fast pace of The Simpsons, so King of the Hill went in the opposite direction, slowing down the pace, and leaning as heavily on real life for its stories as The Simpsons leaned on old movie and TV plots. (A general rule of thumb with KotH is that if you see a story idea that seems outlandish -- like dog dancing, or Texans panicking at half an inch of snow -- it's probably based on something real.) And whereas most shows get wackier as they go on, KotH has gotten more and more mellow, to the point where a lot of its jokes hardly seem like jokes at all (they are funny, but only if you know who the characters are, which is, again, why it works better once you've seen a few episodes). Mike Judge usually compares it to The Andy Griffith Show, and that's a good comparison; they even had an episode last year where Hank outwits a con man who thinks he can pull a fast one on the local rubes, much as Andy Taylor used to do every other week.

King of the Hill didn't sell well on DVD, which explains why the third season is coming out without special features (though it's still a good deal, as I'll explain in my review). It's never had much of an internet following either, partly because the shows that are most popular on the net tend to be the fast-paced, pop-culture-laden ones, and partly because Fox ordered the show's fan websites shut down back in 1997, an infamous move that essentially killed off the show's online fanbase as it was starting to develop. But I do notice that the show is becoming a bit more popular online, probably because it's now on cable -- on FX, to be exact -- and a cable run seems to be a major catalyst for a show's online popularity. I'm not really sure why. Incidentally, King of the Hill will be returning with new episodes on January 16; it's only had two new episodes so far this season, because Fox somehow decided that they should run My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss instead (good move, guys).

Okay, the review:


The third season of King of the Hill, created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, is perhaps its best, with the writing at its peak and with as varied and well-defined a group of characters as you'll find on any sitcom. Even if you aren't a regular viewer of the show, you will probably like this season; King of the Hill sometimes gets a reputation for dryness, but the episodes in this set include some uproariously funny farce episodes, and some dark episodes that take off on bizarre premises that no other show would do. King of the Hill is sometimes the forgotten hit of Fox -- a long-running show that is often pre-empted but gets good ratings whenever Fox deigns to air it -- and for a while, with music-rights issues and lackluster sales for the season 2 set, it seemed in danger of becoming the forgotten show on DVD. Hopefully its current successful cable run on the FX Network, combined with the very reasonable price of this 3 disc set (3 double-sided discs with 25 episodes), will induce more people to buy this set, and lead to further season set releases.

Here's a rundown of the 25 episodes in this set:

1. "Death of a Propane Salesman" -- A darkly funny opening to a great season, finding humor in the question of how we deal with death and fear of dying. It also includes a Sinead O'Connor spoof, a weirdly beautiful Buddhist fantasy sequence, and of course, Chuck Mangione.

2. "And They Call It Bobby Love" -- Bobby (Pamela Segall) falls in love with a girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who's two years older than him. And in a subplot that's hilarious for reasons that can't quite be described, Hank and his friend become obsessed with an abandoned couch. This episode won KotH the Emmy for outstanding animated series.

3. "Peggy's Headache" -- Peggy (Kathy Najimy) finally realizes that Dale's wife Nancy (Ashley Gardner) is having an affair with her Native American "healer," John Redcorn (Jonathan Joss). Another episode that takes a tough subject, adultery, and makes it funny.

4. "Pregnant Paws" -- Hank (Mike Judge) tries to find a breeding partner for his dog Ladybird, which makes Peggy jealous, as she's the one who really wants another baby. And in a subplot, Dale (Johnny Hardwick) becomes the world's worst bounty hunter; like many KotH subplots, this connects with the main plot rather than being a distraction from it.

5. "Next of Shin" -- To add to Hank's frustration over not being able to have another child, his father Cotton (Toby Huss) reveals that he's going to become a father again. As you can see, this season of King of the Hill is one of the few seasons of an animated series that incorporates some continuing story arcs; the story points introduced in this episode will continue in other episodes and come to a head in the season finale.

6. "Peggy's Pageant Fever" -- Peggy enters a beauty pageant and becomes insecure both about her looks and her accomplishments. Contains some of the show's best moments, especially a hilarious throwaway scene where Bill (Stephen Root) sings "Takin' Care of Business." Guest stars include Carol Alt and Kathy Ireland.

7. "Nine Pretty Darn Angry Men" -- Hank, his friends and his father sit on a focus group, and Hank is the only one who objects to the company's plans to redesign its product. Among other things, this is the episode that starts to develop Peggy Hill's egomaniac tendencies ("In my opinion, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year"). Guest-stars, Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam.

8. "Good Hill Hunting" -- Hank wants to take Bobby on his first hunting trip, but is unable to get a hunting license. Like the gun episode from the second season, this episode both satirizes Texas culture and takes it as a given; and it's not so much about guns as about a father-son relationship and the significance we attach to coming-of-age rituals.

9. "Pretty, Pretty Dresses" -- The strangest Christmas episode ever: Hank's lonely divorced friend Bill tries to kill himself, and then decides that if he can't get his wife back, he will become her by wearing her old clothes. It sounds depressing, but it's actually one of the funniest episodes of the season -- with a genuinely touching ending capped by a great closing gag. What makes King of the Hill so good is its ability to be realistic and bizarre and affecting all at once, and this is one of the best episodes.

10. "A Firefighting We Will Go" -- Hank and his friends become volunteer firefighters. An unabashed slapstick episode, full of Three Stooges references, crazy physical gags, and funny lines. One of the funniest episodes of the season demonstrates that KotH can do a "wacky" episode as well as anybody.

11. "To Spank With Love" -- Peggy gets in trouble for spanking a student, but then becomes a hero as "Paddlin' Peggy," and starts to use her reputation to scare her students. The last KotH episode written by David Zuckerman, who then left to co-create Family Guy, and who therefore might not be terribly thrilled with my opinion of Family Guy.

12. "Three Coaches and a Bobby" -- When Hank gets his tough old coach to run Bobby's football team, Bobby decides he'd rather play on the more fun, less regimented soccer team. Guest star: Will Ferrell.

13. "De-Kahnstructing Henry" -- Hank's overachieving neighbor Kahn (Toby Huss) tries to make Hank jealous of his great new job -- but in the process, he gives away government secrets and gets fired.

14. "The Wedding of Bobby Hill" -- Bobby and his cousin Luanne (Brittany Murphy) compete for the attention of a concert promoter and self-proclaimed genius, Rad (Matthew McConaughey, in one of the show's funniest guest-voice performances). When things get out of hand, Hank and Peggy teach Bobby a lesson by convincing him that he got Luanne pregnant and has to marry her.

15. "Sleight of Hank" -- After seeing a magic show, Bobby incorporates the tricks and patter into his Sunday School report on Jesus. Besides this hilarious scene ("I am The Amazing Jesus!") the episode is a character study of the differences between Hank and Peggy.

16. "Return to La Grunta" -- The story of Hank almost getting sexually assaulted by a dolphin is combined with a parallel subplot about Luanne getting sexually harassed at work. One of the show's most famous and unique episodes. Guest star: Billy West.

17. "Escape From Party Island" -- Hank takes his mother and her friends to a miniatures museum in Port Aransas, and winds up caught in the middle of MTV's Spring Break. Guest stars: Pauly Shore, Phyllis Diller, Uta Hagen, Betty White.

18. "Love Hurts and So Does Art" -- Nervous about the idea of going to a dance with Connie (Lauren Tom), Bobby starts overeating and develops gout. Meanwhile, in a shout-out to one of the show's most famous early episodes, Hank finds that an X-ray of his constipated colon is on display in a Dallas art gallery.

19. "Hank's Cowboy Movie" -- Hank tries to get the Dallas Cowboys to move their training camp to Arlen by making a promotional video for the town. Everything goes farcically wrong, of course, but the episode has a surprisingly touching undercurrent about Hank's fear that Bobby will leave Arlen when he grows up.

20. "Dog Dale Afternoon" -- Dale driven round the bend when his friends steal his new lawn mower as a prank. The plot then develops into a dark but funny sendup of every sniper-in-a-tower movie you've seen.

21. "Revenge of the Lutefisk" -- The new female minister (Mary Tyler Moore) serves a midwestern fish dish, which somehow indirectly leads to Bobby accidentally burning down the church. Still another episode that gets humor, South Park-style, from sensitive subjects (church-burnings, hate crimes).

22. "Death and Texas" -- Peggy goes to visit a death row convict, and unwittingly winds up smuggling cocaine in to him.

23. "Wings of the Dope" -- Luanne thinks that her boyfriend Buckley (David Herman) has come back as an angel. The episode was inspired by a news report saying that a majority of Americans believe in angels, and like a lot of good King of the Hill episodes, it presents an interesting theme in a roundabout sort of way: it presents a goal for the character (in this case, passing a test) that looks like the main plot point of the episode, and then turns around in the third act and reveals that that wasn't the important thing after all. King of the Hill used to do this a lot, sort of disguising the real thrust of the episode by distracting us with less-important story points, and it's a very interesting technique that few sitcoms use these days. Contains the famous use of the song "Life in a Northern Town" by Dream Academy.

24. "Take Me Out of the Ball Game" -- Peggy becomes the star pitcher for Hank's softball team, but Hank's over-managing causes her to lose her touch.

25. "As Old as the Hills" -- In the season finale, Hank and Peggy mark their twentieth wedding anniversary by lamenting their lost dreams, and they decide to do something crazy. This episode ties up the themes that have run through the season (such as Peggy's frustration and Cotton's new baby) into another funny, touching and well-constructed story.

Video & Audio

King of the Hill was one of the last animated series to be inked and painted on cels (The Simpsons was the other; both shows went digital a couple of years ago). This season uses the same character designs and animation style that was solidified in season two, though sometimes the animation and visuals seem a bit more loose and free than you'd see on a current episode. Some of the visuals in "And They Call It Bobby Love," or the animation of Bill in the final scene of "Pretty Pretty Dresses," are quite impressive for a TV cartoon.

Fox's transfer is what we've come to expect: a good, solid transfer that faithfully reproduces the source material "as is." In the case of KotH, the third season had a cleaner and more polished look than the second and especially first seasons, and that's what we see here. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is perfectly fine and true to the original mix: dialogue center, occasional directional sound effects.

Special Features

Because of disappointing sales of the overpriced second season, Fox has released the third season with hardly no special features (but at a lower price than the second season). While I understand that it might no longer justify the cost of newly-produced special features, releasing it without any features at all seems to treat one of Fox's longest-running properties as a sort of second-class citizen among its shows, which might put off potential buyers, further endangering the show's chances of getting further seasons on DVD.

Ultimately, though, the uncut episodes are worth it alone. With Amazon selling the set for $27.99 that amounts to little more than a buck an episode. Even if you didn't get the first two seasons, I would recommend giving this season a try; it's perhaps the best season and probably the best introduction to a wonderful show. (And after all, the first season's special features already provided a good overview of the making of the entire series.) Buy it, help get the rest of the seasons out, and remember Hank Hill's words of wisdom: "Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking."

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Leo Robin

'Tis the season to stop posting about depressing songs and turn to more pleasant topics... like great writers of non-depressing songs. While the lyricist Leo Robin is not completely unknown -- he has a chapter in the book Reading Lyrics, and is remembered as the guy who wrote the lyrics to "Thanks For the Memory" -- he's not particularly well known, and he should be.

Brief biographical note: he was born in Pittsburgh, went to law school at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, concluded that law was not for him (why would that ever happen?), and moved to New York to write songs. His big break came when he got to write some of the lyrics for the show Hit the Deck, to Vincent Youmans's music, though I'm not sure which lyrics he wrote. He moved out to Hollywood, where he started collaborating with the composer Richard Whiting, father of Margaret, on songs for Paramount movies; they wrote Maurice Chevalier's first big American hit, "Louise," and then wrote the songs for Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo, including the blockbuster "Beyond the Blue Horizon." After Monte Carlo, Lubitsch hired Robin several more times, telling him that he liked his lyrics because "You don't turn my characters into performers."

In the mid-'30s Robin joined up with the composer Ralph Rainger, writing many hits for Paramount and Fox musicals. Their most famous collaboration, as previously mentioned, was "Thanks For the Memory." Rainger was killed in a plane crash in 1942, and Robin never had another regular songwriting partner; but he wrote for some of the best composers in the business, including Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Sigmund Romberg, and Jule Styne, with whom he wrote the Broadway show Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Robin more or less retired in the late '50s -- he turned down the chance to write the lyrics to Funny Girl, noting that it was too much like the cliche'd biopics the Hollywood studios had been churning out when he was there -- and died in 1984.

Robin probably wrote several songs that you sort of remember, and many of them have had real staying power. It helped that Bob Hope adopted "Thanks For the Memory" as his theme song, Eddie Cantor used "One Hour With You" as his theme song, and Jack Benny picked "Love in Bloom" as his. But it also helped that Leo Robin was one of the best pop lyricists of his generation. The operative word there is "pop"; though, as Lubitsch admiringly noted, Robin could write lyrics that were appropriate for story and characters, he always stuck to the basic forms and patterns of pop lyric writing, with the three basic themes of every pop song: a) Love, b) Love, and c) Love. He wouldn't play around with form like Johnny Mercer did, or with syntax the way E.Y. Harburg did. He wrote solid, functional, well-crafted lyrics that expressed familiar things in fresh ways.

What makes a Leo Robin lyric work so well is, first of all, his high level of craftsmanship in fitting words to music. Here's one of my favorites among his lyrics, "Lost in Loveliness," from the 1954 Broadway musical The Girl in Pink Tights, music by Sigmund Romberg (who died before the score was completed, but this was one of the songs he managed to finish):

What a thrill you are,
What a sight to see,
Something the eyes of mortals have no right to see.
Am I on the earth or in the sky?
Lost in loveliness am I.
When I look at you,
I forget myself,
I could go mad about you if I let myself.
Should I let myself, or pass you by?
Lost in loveliness am I.
I know I'm reaching for a star,
What's more, I know how dangerous you are.
If I were wise
I'd close my eyes
Or walk away and worship from afar.
In the lonely night,
You would haunt my heart,
And I would pray that someday you might want my heart.
And I'd have to live my whole life through
Lost in loveliness, the loveliness of you.

On paper, these look like good solid lyrics, but what lifts them into the class of great lyrics is the way they fit the tune (Romberg, like most Broadway composers of his time, always wrote the tune first and expected the lyricist to fit it). Every development in the melody is perfectly matched by the words that Robin chooses for that particular point. For example, the tune is fairly calm and collected for the first two (repeated) measures, and suddenly gets more passionate with a "blue" note in the third measure, only to calm down again and go back to the initial phrase. In each section of the song, Robin makes sure to put an important word on that all-important note, a word that is easy to sing on a sustained note and is suggestive of the love and passion that the song is about: "eyes" (rivaling the heart as the go-to organs for songwriting, but "heart" is hard to sing on a sustained note), "mad," and "pray." And the line for that phrase, the key musical phrase in the melody, is always a line about something beyond reality: "Something the eyes of mortals have no right to see," "I could go mad about you," "I would pray that someday you might want my heart." And then as the melody calms down, Robin writes a phrase more indicative of reality, as the singer briefly faces the real world again: "Am I on the earth," "Should I let myself" -- before rejecting reality: he's "lost in loveliness" and will stay that way.

Another thing Robin did particularly well, perhaps better than any other lyricist except Irving Berlin, was to end a song by putting a twist on the title. The title is probably the most important part of a classic-era popular song lyric (as Ira Gershwin put it: "A title/Is vital./Once you've it,/Prove it"), and Robin was exceptionally good at giving the title an extra bit of meaning, or a play on words, or something to make the ending of the song seem fresh, instead of a repetition of what we heard at the beginning. Here are some examples of Robin's little title twists, mostly from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

("Bye Bye Baby")
Though you'll be gone for a while,
I know that I'll be smiling
With my baby, bye and bye.

("Just a Kiss Apart")
So while we're just a kiss apart,
Kiss me and tell me you're mine.

("It's High Time")
It's no time to get low,
Let's start to let go,
Start to feel high,
Have a real high

Have some fun,
Thrill your heart,
With the sun
Fill your heart,
Save it for a rainy day.

These are pretty simple tricks -- contrasting sunshine with rain, playing on "high time" (the expression "It's high time" contrasted with the idea of a "high" time) -- but they work, and they are exceptionally difficult to do when you're writing to the music and trying to come up with an ending that at once exploits the title and expands on it. These little twists give the listener the feeling that something has happened in the song, that there's been some kind of progression or thinking going on, and that the ending is really the ending, not just a repetition of whatever was said in the first line.

Robin was also good at writing comedy lyrics; "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is his most famous comedy song, but he could also put some genuine wit into a pop lyric, playing with jokes and internal rhymes while still keeping the apparent simplicity that a good pop lyric needs. "Thanks For the Memory" is probably the funniest ballad ever written, and "Hooray For Love," written with Harold Arlen, is a pretty nutty combination of love song and list song:

Some trust to fate for love,
Others have to take off weight for love,
Some go berzerk for love,
Loafers even go to work for love.
Sad songs are sobbed for love,
People have their noses bobbed for love,
Some say we pay for love,
Just the same, hooray for love!

It's the wonder of the world!
It's a rocket to the moon!
It gets you high, it gets you low,
But once you get that glow --
Oh! Love!

There's no biography of Robin as far as I know; he didn't lead a very eventful life. His last public appearance, and for all I know his first major public appearance, was in 1982 as part of New York's "Lyrics and Lyricists" series at the 92nd Street "Y," where, the New York Times reported, "the most affecting singing came from Mr. Robin himself. Clutching an ever-present pipe in his hand, he sang a jaunty, throaty version of ''Love Is Just Around the Corner,'' a warm and husky treatment of ''June in January'' and, with grace and feeling, the song he sang to his wife at their wedding, ''If I Should Lose You.''"

Since I was previously quoting depressing songs, I'll close by quoting one of the most un-depressing songs ever written, "The Worry Bird," by Mr. Robin and Jule Styne. This was introduced by Gloria De Haven in the 1951 movie musical Two Tickets to Broadway, one of many 1950s RKO movies that misfired due to the meddling (and possible insanity) of RKO then-boss Howard Hughes. But "The Worry Bird" has had some minor popularity outside of the film, and deserves more; Styne's wonderfully upbeat tune is complimented by lyrics that use every possible device to create a "happy" sound: internal rhymes, sound patterns suggestive of a chirping bird, alliteration -- and all without ever sounding less than natural. The great thing about the classic pop lyricists is that they made such difficult work sound so simple. Leo Robin was one of the best.


Everyone has his share of care and woe.
Even in Lovers Lane, there’s rain and snow.
We all have to pay the piper,
So why be a gloomy griper?
Forget regret, don’t let it get you low, no --


Let the worry bird worry for you,
Let the worry bird fuss and stew,
He’s a wonderful pet,
And when you get the jitters,
He twitters.
Let the worry bird worry his head,
Have the time of your life instead,
What’s a tumble or two
As long as you can keep well,
Sleep well?
Every cloud is silver-lined,
Bear that in mind
When old man trouble gets tough
And the going gets rough,
Let the worry bird worry for you,
It’s remarkable what he’ll do,
He’ll consider it fun
To be your understudy,
So buddy,
Why should you be blue?
Let the worry bird sing the blues for you.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Depressing Songs, Further Cont.

Another favorite among the great Depressing Songs of the American songbook is "You Mustn't Be Discouraged," the only really memorable song in a rather disappointing 1964 musical called Fade Out/Fade In. A vehicle for Carol Burnett, co-starring Jack Cassidy, written by Comden and Green, with music by Jule Styne, and directed by George Abbott really ought to be better than this was, but Comden and Green has declined quite a bit since their '50s prime (Singin' in the Rain, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing), Styne used most of his best tunes that year for Funny Girl, and the plot -- Burnett tries to make it in '30s Hollywood -- was sort of an inferior talkie-era version of the authors' Singin' in the Rain.

Anyway, the best number in the show was "You Mustn't Feel Discouraged," where Burnett (dressed as Shirley Temple) duetted with Tiger Haynes (dressed as Bill Robinson) in what sounds like a '30s-style upbeat, things-will-get-better song... unless you listen closely to some of the lyrics:

When you think you've hit the bottom
And you're feeling mighty low,
You mustn't feel discouraged --
There's always one step further down you can go.
When you're lying in the gutter,
Feeling just a bit unsure,
Just think about tomorrow --
You may be lying face-first down in the sewer.
Don't be afraid of a little raindrop,
That don't mean nothin', bud.
Just remember, one little raindrop
Started the Jonestown Flood
(In Pennsylvania).
When you're sleeping on a park bench
Eating grass 'cause you've no dough,
Your luck will change manana --
You may be six feet under, helping it grow.
So just remember when you're lower than low,
There's always one step further down you can go.

Don't be afraid of a little rumble,
What's that, for goodness sake?
Just remember, one little rumble
Started the 'Frisco Quake.
(In Pennsylvania?)
When you're sleeping on a park bench
Eating grass 'cause you've no dough,
Your luck will change manana --
You may be six feet under, helping it grow.
So just remember when you're lower than low,
There's always one step further down you can go.

This number, with Burnett doing a hilarious Shirley Temple act, stopped the show every night, and is still fondly remembered by people who (like my Dad) didn't find the rest of the show at all memorable.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Merry Holidays

I know I already just linked to a Peanuts strip, but this one is worth a link too, especially with the seasonal arguments about Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas (arguments that are now a religious tradition themselves in that they have only ritual significance). And let's face it: for all the talk about restoring the Real Meaning of Christmas, everybody more or less knows what Christmas is all about, in part because they've all seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. The real meaning of Chanukah is in much more danger of being forgotten, though since it's not a very significant holiday, maybe it was inevitable that it would get swallowed up by the big Mega-Holiday.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Downgraded From the Movie

If you follow musicals, it can't have escaped your attention that many if not most stage musicals nowadays are based on movies. Sometimes it's an expansion of a movie that was already a musical, like Cameron Macintosh's stage production of Mary Poppins -- I hear it's good, but the hype surrounding it has inspired too much pointless anti-Disney twaddle -- but more often it uses a non-musical movie as source material: The Producers, Hairspray, The Full Monty.

The reason for this, or part of the reason, is that musicals are usually based on "scripted" entertainments, where a script or something like it already exists, and all that is needed is to rewrite the script and find places for songs. Traditionally, the major source was the live theatre; a producer would option a nonmusical play like Pygmalion or Green Grow the Lilacs and hire people to musicalize it. It's so hard to put together a musical, with all the different talents and departments it requires, that it's an advantage to have a theatrical script and structure already available before you even start. But now there's not much in the way of commercial non-musical theatre, and even the frankly commercial plays tend to have very few characters; a play with a big cast, like Porgy or The Matchmaker, belongs to the economics of a bygone Broadway. So the equivalent of the commercial theatre is the cinema, and a movie script has some of the things a musical needs: a good-sized cast of characters, opportunities for visual coups, strong dialogue.

Which brings me to the question I should have posed at the beginning: what are some movies that you think would make good stage musicals?

There are two movies that I've particularly wanted to see as stage musicals. One is Love Me Tonight. The movie is just about perfect as it is, I agree, but there are some things a stage musical could add. For one thing, a stage adaptation could restore the sections that were cut out of the movie when it was reissued after the implementation of the Hays Code (the sequences are lost, but the relevant script portions are included on the DVD as an extra). There are supporting characters, like the man-crazy Valentine and the impecunious Count, who could be developed farther than in the movie, with perhaps the introduction of some new characters to be their love interests (I really miss the old-fashioned "secondary couple" that disappeared from the Broadway musical around the '60s). The "Isn't It Romantic?" sequence would be challenging and interesting to re-imagine for the stage. And some additional Rodgers and Hart songs, carefully chosen, could fill out the score.

The operative word there is "intelligently chosen." Normally when a great songwriter's catalogue is raided for a stage show, the temptation is to pack the show with hits; that's what has happened with, say, the various bastardized versions of Anything Goes, where a perfectly fine and well-balanced Cole Porter score is inflated with a bunch of additional hits that really have no business being in this show. If someone were to do Love Me Tonight as "Rodgers and Hart's Greatest Hits," that wouldn't work; there's no place in this operetta-like story for "The Lady Is a Tramp" or even "There's a Small Hotel." But there are a lot of lesser-known Rodgers and Hart songs that could fit into Love Me Tonight and even advance the story and characters, without the danger of the audience recognizing the song from some other show. For example, a Rodgers and Hart musical called America's Sweetheart produced a song that would be perfect for Valentine (and no, it's not "My Funny Valentine," though in Babes in Arms that is in fact sung to someone named Valentine): "A Lady Must Live," a defence of nymphomania: "With my John and my Max/I can reach a climax/That's proof positive/That a lady must live."

The non-musical movie I'd like to see as a musical is Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. It's set in a period, the early '60s, that is now considered sort of cool (look at all the Rat Pack nostalgia). It has two couples, one middle-aged, one young, and lots of funny supporting characters who could conceivably find something to sing about. And while a musical version would probably have to make the characters somewhat more sympathetic than they are in the movie, the cynicism of the source material would still give the whole thing the sort of edge that a good musical comedy needs. A musical version of this movie could be sort of like The Producers with more plot and more of a romantic element.

I once tried fooling around with song ideas for One, Two Three; the silliest one I came up with was a nostalgic duet for two of the ex-Nazi West Germans -- the ex-SS right-hand-man Schlemmer and the chauffeur Fritz -- where they insist that they are not at all nostalgic for pre-War Germany. I present the lyrics here as part of my continuing series of "silly stuff I wrote and can't use anywhere else so I might as well post it." Meanwhile, I'd be interested to hear what movies other people think would be good for a stage musical.

The Bad Old Days

Refrain 1

The bad old days,
Our darkest hour
Of crushing nations flat,
The bad old phase
Of strength and power,
Who'd want to go back to that?
The bad old days
When we were heiling
The man we hated so,
The songs of praise,
The constant smiling,
We're happy to see them go.
That mustached man
Had an evil plan,
Ambitions so grandiose.
We never knew
What he tried to do
Or that he came so close, so close!
But that was wrong,
And there's no German
Who'd ever long
With all his heart
For all the fun we had
In the bad old days.


Those people with the boots, who wore those crosses out of shape,
We clapped for them, but secretly we wanted to escape,
Though thanks to Leni Riefenstahl it's all on film and tape,
We could tell they were buffoons
In the bad old days.

Performances of Meistersinger warmed the human heart,
Furtwangler on the podium and stars in every part,
Of course, we never liked the ode to holy German art,
We just went to hum the tunes
In the bad old days.

Refrain 2

The bad old times
We want no word of,
We're glad they disappeared.
The bad old crimes
We never heard of
And certainly never cheered.
That bad old tome,
So long and sloppy,
"My Camp" or something such;
Though every home
Contained a copy,
It never sold all that much.
We spent each year
Drinking Rheinland beer,
Maintaining our cheerful style.
So keep in mind,
We were not inclined
To march and shout sieg heil, sieg heil!
We all would moan
When we were drafted,
And if we'd known
About the war,
We'd all have gotten mad
In the bad old days.


The bad old days,
So rank and rotten,

The bad old ways
We've all forgotten,

Give thanks and praise
We're living not in
A time like then,
The bad old days will never, never, never, never! -- come again!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

"La Tebaldi" Means "The Tebaldi"

Sad to hear about the death of Renata Tebaldi (though I thought she was older than 82). I think the obituary makes too much of the supposed Callas-Tebaldi feud. The fact is that their repertoires were very different; Callas specialized in bel canto roles like Norma, Lucia, and early-to-middle period Verdi, while Tebaldi specialized in the later Verdi -- Aida, Desdemona -- and Puccini. Callas recorded some of those roles, but she didn't usually do them on stage. The only part that both singers were strongly identified with was Tosca, and Callas wasn't terribly fond of that part (she became identified with it almost against her will, because her recording of it was such a gigantic success). Callas and Joan Sutherland, who actually sang many of the same roles, would have made for a better feud, but the media either forgot to create one or didn't bother.

Tebaldi's recordings don't really give me a full idea of what her impact must have been, as a singer. The impact of a huge voice filling the theatre, which is not only huge but beautiful-sounding, is something that can't really be preserved on a recording; and that's what made Tebaldi so special to people who heard her live. Most big voices have either a not-very-attractive tone or else a "cold" sound (Birgit Nilsson); Tebaldi's voice was big and warm and attractive, and it must have been quite something to hear, especially combined with her idiomatic Italian style: Callas was famous for re-thinking and re-inventing the operas she sang, while Tebaldi made the best possible case for the "traditional" approach to the operas she sang. On records, Tebaldi's vocal flaws are more apparent, especially the pitch problems; but there are some very fine complete recordings with Tebaldi. Her second recording of La Boheme, with an all-Italian cast that includes Carlo Bergonzi and Ettore Bastianini, is probably my favorite recording of this opera; it uses a somewhat unusual recording technique whereby the orchestra is placed forward and the voices are farther away from the microphones than usual -- this sometimes causes voices to be drowned out a bit, but it comes closer than most recordings to preserving the impact of a big voice in a theatre (you can really hear the resonance of Tebaldi's voice, not to mention the fact that her voice is bigger than Bergonzi's).

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The True Spirit of Blogging

There's been some blog-to-blog discussion recently on Michael Malone's article on the blogosphere and whether it can supplant the mainstream media. He doesn't think so, and he predicts a bubble-bursting similar to that of the already legendary dot-coms:

You may argue that since most bloggers simply volunteer their energies to run their blogs, they could theoretically go on forever. And some will. But most, I suspect, want some sort of payback over time for their efforts — whether it is an income or merely the kind of fame that can be converted (speeches, books, jobs) into income. Thus, the phenomenon of the lonely blogger suddenly getting linked by Glenn Reynolds and enjoying a so-called Instapundit Avalanche of thousands of hits in a matter of minutes — and openly begging the visitors to stick around. At some point, many of those millions of bloggers — perhaps 95 percent if past is precedent — will simply grow weary and give up.

His point, I think, is a pretty fair one. Obviously most people don't go into blogging in the hope of striking it rich, but there are often mainstream-media aspirations involved (I hate the term "MSM," BTW, but YMMV). I may be wrong, but it seems to me that blogging started to take off more and more as online magazines started to collapse. Speaking from experience, I used to submit articles to Salon and get them published. Now you don't get into Salon unless you're either an overly-expensive pundit or someone who writes like a reject from Television Without Pity. And whereas Salon is still around and losing money, most online magazines from the dot-com era are gone, having no money left to lose.

What it all means is that dot-coms were unable to provide an alternative to mainstream publications, something that could be open to us J-school rejects; the online magazines that survived became as closed-off as their print cousins. Which means that people who might otherwise have been submitting copy to some unseen editor are instead starting blogs. I enjoy blogging, and I hope I can blog more often (this once every couple of days thing is no way to increase readership), and I love the fact that the blogosphere has allowed for the emergence of writers and subject-matter you wouldn't find in the newspaper. Certainly I could never have gotten a magazine, online or off, to run stories about some of the obscure stuff I've posted about here.

But there are disadvantages to blogging, too. To a large extent it has supplanted the usenet newsgroup -- people who, like me, used to post a lot to usenet now spend their online time at their blogs -- and I sort of miss the give-and-take of the really good newsgroups (the golden age of the newsgroup was the '90s, which, as you all know, was the absolute best era for everything). Now we're all pontificating instead of discussing; sure, there are comments sections, but it's just not the same as a group where everybody's equal and where people are carrying on conversations in terms of big, detailed, thoughtful posts (and unlike comments, usenet posts get archived, taking on a more or less permanent form). The lack of editorial interference is, perhaps, an advantage of blogging, but there are disadvantages too; who among us couldn't stand to hear someone telling us to cut this and fix that and make our posts a little shorter? Not to mention that if I had an editor I'd actually be forced to post on a regular schedule.

So the blogosphere is great, but I do think it's kind of a passing phase, in its current form; there will still be blogs in the future, as long as people with something to say take to the Internet to say it. That's the best part of blogging, and the part that won't change. But as the mainstream media adapt to deal with the semi-competition from blogs -- and they always adapt -- we'll see the decline of blogs that were started specifically to compete with the mainstream media. Just as established companies co-opted whatever minor advantages the dot-coms had, just as the mainstream magazines got online components that dwarfed most of the online-only magazines, so the media companies will soon be able to offer whatever blogs offer. The blogs that survive will be the ones that provide something the mainstream media doesn't find it profitable to provide. Which means that this one should be around a while longer, unless somebody starts up an Obscure Musicals Weekly. In which case, I'm available.

Friday, December 17, 2004

New Sun in the Sky

The next bunch of notable DVD releases comes March 15, when Warner Home Video releases "Broadway to Hollywood - the Classic Musicals Collection." As usual, the five titles are available individually or in a boxed set, and they are:

The Band Wagon (2 disc special edition) -- commentary, making-of documentary, documentary on Vincente Minnelli, outtake number "Two-Faced Woman"

Easter Parade (2 disc special edition) -- commentary, making-of, documentary "Judy Garland: By Myself," outtakes

Brigadoon (remastered) -- outtake musical numbers: Come to Me, Bend to Me, From this Day On and Sword Dance; also audio-only outtake of "There But For You Go I"

Bells are Ringing -- making-of featurette; outtake musical numbers Is It a Crime, My Guiding Star and alternate takes of The Midas Touch

Finian's Rainbow -- commentary by Francis Ford Coppola

The highlight here, of course, is The Band Wagon, a movie so good that even the then-obligatory Big Ballet, "The Girl Hunt," is actually a highlight rather than a distraction (whereas in Singin' in the Rain, the "Broadway Ballet" holds up the film at a point when it really ought to be getting back to the story). It's Minnelli's best musical, and quite possibly the best of the M-G-M musicals, period.

Like a lot of movie musicals from the early '50s, and especially those written by Comden and Green, it's also sort of a self-referential argument about the artistic stature of musicals. Singin' in the Rain celebrates the musical as the best argument for the superiority of sound films over silents -- since that's the only genre you can't do in silent pictures. At a time when many critics still felt that sound films were inferior to silent films (pick up James Agee and you'll find him returning to this theme on page after page), Singin' celebrates the artistry and craftsmanship of the ultimate in sound filmmaking, the musical. And Band Wagon is a celebration of the old-fashioned, pure fun musical comedy, at a time when stage musicals were becoming more and more serious and determined to compete with serious theatre. Fred Astaire returns to New York and finds that not only has the town changed, musicals have changed too, importing people from High Culture (Jack Buchanan's "genius" actor/director, loosely based on Jose Ferrer; Cyd Charisse's ballerina; James Mitchell's ballet choreographer) and inflating everything with Big Themes. But Astaire's old-school showmanship wins out, and he reshapes the show into something fun and unpretentious -- while still utilizing the talents of some of the High Culture people, much in the way that, say, Rodgers and Hart's musical comedies used the talents of highbrow guys like George Balanchine.

Of the others, Easter Parade is a good, solid Arthur Freed production with the characteristics that most of his films had, no matter who was directing: -- solid story construction, long, fluid takes, and good "blending" of performers whose talents might not seem at first glance to have much in common. Bells are Ringing has Judy Holliday in her stage role, Minnelli directing, Comden and Green adapting their excellent stage show. It's entertaining, but it should be better than it is; cutting Holliday's big comedy number, "Is It a Crime," didn't help, but the whole thing somehow seems less fun than it probably did on stage. Maybe Minnelli is to blame; I'm a big fan, but this material needed somebody a little looser and more whimsical, whereas Minnelli's thing was the carefully-composed, elaborately planned extended shot. Also, Dean Martin didn't seem to be trying very hard in this one, though I don't agree with people who think he's miscast (Dean Martin is playing an artist whose longtime partner has broken up with him, but who finds he can succeed on his own -- how can you say that's miscasting?). Still, Holliday is brilliant, the material is good, and it'll be great to see it in widescreen format at last. I have no such enthusiasm for Brigadoon, where nearly everybody is miscast and where Minnelli hasn't really figured out how to use CinemaScope effectively. But Finian's Rainbow, one of the last of the big '60s roadshow musicals (though, contrary to what I believed, it wasn't a flop), is well worth a look; young wunderkind Coppola used the original Broadway script almost unchanged, and if you can grit your teeth through Tommy Steele, there's a lot of good stuff here, particularly since the score -- by master lyricist Yip Harburg and one of American pop's greatest melodists, Burton Lane -- is one of Broadway's best.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Other Robert Stevenson

This article is, as far as I know, the only article available online about the English director Robert Stevenson, who had an interesting career trajectory: after becoming a success in England with various action films, such as a version of King Solomon's Mines, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick and came to America. Selznick brought him over at the same time as another prominent English director, Alfred Hitchcock, but unlike Hitchcock, Stevenson pretty much bombed out in America; his one A-list picture from this period, 1944's Jane Eyre, is generally thought of as Orson Welles' movie (it starred Welles and was worked on by a lot of Welles's Mercury Theatre people, like John Houseman and Bernard Herrmann). His career finally turned around in the late '50s when, on the basis of a TV movie, "Johnny Tremain," Walt Disney hired Stevenson to be his number-one director of live-action movies. Stevenson spent the rest of his career working for the Disney company. He wasn't any kind of auteur -- the various participants on the commentary track for Mary Poppins hardly even mention Stevenson, which is not surprising given that they all knew that Disney was the one in charge of the film -- and his best movies, not coincidentally, are the ones that Disney himself was most closely involved with, like Mary Poppins and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. He was a good example of what might be called the producer's director: someone who can carry out the vision of a non-directing auteur producer. Other examples of this relationship include Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis at Warner Brothers (Wallis, the producer, was the auteur of such films as Casablanca; Curtiz translated his vision into the actual filmed footage).

Happy Beethoven's Birthday

It's just not Beethoven's birthday without a Peanuts strip.

Fun fact: Charles Schulz wrote that his favorite composer was not Beethoven, but Brahms; he made Beethoven Schroeder's hero because "Beethoven" had a better sound when it came to punchlines.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Annoyed Grunt Work

Hogan's Alley, the cartooning magazine, has posted its long interview with David Silverman. Silverman was one of the two original animators on The Simpsons shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, and he was supervising director of the spinoff series for many years. While most of the critical attention given to The Simpsons in the early was focused on the writing, in many ways what really set the show apart from other prime-time animated shows was the fact that it looked better. Directors like Silverman, Archer, and Brad Bird came up with a distinctive look for the show, from the trademark poses -- the tongue-wagging screams, and so on -- to camera moves and angles that gave the thing a more "cinematic" feel than most TV cartoons had. Bird, for example, reportedly came up with the idea of having the camera quickly pan up Homer's head when we hear his thoughts, the better to suggest that his brain is "talking" to him as if it's some kind of separate entity.

An argument among people who watch The Simpsons is when the animation was at its best. There are some animation buffs who argue that the animation on the Ullman shorts and the first season is the best; it's cruder and sloppier than what you'd see on the show today, but in terms of animation, of movement, that arguably makes it better, because Homer and co. had more unique and distinctive poses and "acted" with their faces and bodies in more unique ways. As the show went on, the animation became more standardized, with more stock poses being used instead of unique poses for unique situations. But this is true of any animated show -- the first season of King of the Hill, which Brad Bird consulted on, had some poses and camera moves that the show would never have tried even two years later -- and I think it's fair to say that a lot of the poses that look unique and distinctive in the first season are actually mistakes. Still, I prefer the rude and rough animation of the first season to a lot of the very standardized, stock-pose animation that you'll sometimes see in prime-time animation nowadays.

Anyway, it's a good long interview that gives plenty of insight into the show's visuals as well as the show as a whole (including the origins of the ultimate meta-humor episode, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show").

Monday, December 13, 2004

Answers to Quiz

Here are the answers to the lyrics quiz I posted below:

1. Missus Sheridan's Ann

Ann Sheridan, movie actress and "oomph" girl

"In a sweater, say, who looks better than Missus Sheridan's Ann?"
-- "See That You're Born in Texas" (Cole Porter), Something For the Boys

2. When J.P. Morgan bows, I just nod

J. Pierpont Morgan, tycoon

"When J.P. Morgan bows, I just nod;
Green Pastures wanted me to play God."
-- "I Can't Get Started" (Ira Gershwin & Vernon Duke), Ziegfeld Follies of 1936

3. Truman Capote's balls

Truman Capote, author

"She's no longer a gypsy,
No more Equity calls.
She's gonna get those fancy invitations now
To Truman Capote's balls."
-- "She's No Longer a Gypsy" (Lee Adams & Charles Strouse), Applause

4. A fellow named Ben Hogan

Ben Hogan, golfer

"I went to see the President -- they asked me to wait.
And though I knew that he was swamped with matters of state,
A fellow named Ben Hogan walked right through the front gate!"
-- "Progress Is the Root of All Evil" (Johnny Mercer & Gene De Paul), Li'l Abner

5. Marilyn Miller in SUNNY

Marilyn Miller, Broadway star of the '20s

"Marilyn Miller in Sunny,
Jolson down on one knee..."
-- "Homesick Blues" (Jule Styne & Leo Robin), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

6. Grover Whalen and his hat

Grover Whalen, 1939 World's Fair guy

"With the skies blue above
And a peaceful habitat,
There'll be no danger of
Hearing Franklin give a chat,
And we'll know also, my love,
Grover Whalen and his hat
Are far away."
-- "Far Away" (Cole Porter), Leave it to Me

7. Jesse James could shoot

Jesse James, bank robber

"Jesse James could shoot, you know,
But did you know he drank?
And who held good old Jesse up
While he held up the bank?"
-- "Bad Companions" (Jean Kerr, Walter Kerr, Joan Ford & Leroy Anderson), Goldilocks

8. The Joe DiMaggio of love

Joe DiMaggio, non-steroid-abusing baseball star

"I'm Don Jose of Far Rockaway,
The man all women whisper of.
Don Jose, the Joe DiMaggio of love."
-- "Don Jose of Far Rockaway" (Harold Rome), Wish You Were Here

9. Buying tickets for Rosalind Russell

Rosalind Russell, actress

"I sure had to hop and to hustle
Buying tickets for Rosalind Russell!"
-- "Intermission Chat" (Rodgers & Hammerstein), Me and Juliet

10. Refined L.B. Mayer

Louis B. Mayer, M-G-M mogul

"I've never been dined by refined L.B. Mayer,
But I've still got my health, so what do I care?"
-- "I've Still Got My Health" (Cole Porter), Panama Hattie

11. We got Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell, civil rights leader

"We got a right to howl,
We got Adam Clayton Powell!"
-- "Don't Forget 127th Street" (Strouse & Adams), Golden Boy

12. I'm tired of Richard Dix

Richard Dix, movie star

"I'm finished with Navarro,
I'm tired of Richard Dix.
I'm pierced by Cupid's arrow
Ev'ry Wednesday from four till six."
-- "Mad About the Boy" (Noel Coward), Words and Music

13. He fell in love with Oscar Hammerstein

Oscar Hammerstein II, inventor of larks learning to pray

"Love songs I played him that sent shivers down his spine,
And he fell in love with Oscar Hammerstein."
-- "It's a Hell of a Way To Run a Love Affair" (Arnold Horwitt & Albert Hague), Plain and Fancy

14. Shakespeare will be shakin'

William Shakespeare, author of Francis Bacon's complete works

"Browning will report it to 10 Downing,
Johnson cry 'Why isn't Boswell here?'
Shakespeare will be shakin'
And awakin' Francis Bacon,
And they'll each deny the other wrote King Lear.
-- "Butler In the Abbey" (Yip Harburg & Jule Styne), Darling of the Day

15. Peggy Joyce has a business

Peggy Hopkins Joyce, prototypical gold digger

"Peggy Joyce has a business,
All her husbands have gold."
-- "I've Got Five Dollars" (Rodgers & Hart), America's Sweetheart

16. All men but Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw, bearded Irishman

"Though you're aesthetic, apathetic
To all men but Bernard Shaw..."
-- "Try To Learn To Love" (Noel Coward), This Year of Grace

17. I'm Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian Bombshell

"If this isn't love
I'm Carmen Miranda.
If this isn't love,
It's Red propaganda."
-- "If This Isn't Love" (Yip Harburg & Burton Lane), Finian's Rainbow

18. C. Aubrey Smith and those other codgers

C. Aubrey Smith, stock British actor from Hollywood movies like Trouble in Paradise

"Fred Astaire and Rogers,
C. Aubrey Smith and those other codgers."
-- The Late Late Show (Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne), Do Re Mi

19. Mr. Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis, pre-Kinsey sex expert

"When Mr. Havelock Ellis tries to tell us
Why we're so complex,
I say 'Mr. Ellis, what the hell is
Scientific sex?'"
-- "A Lady Needs a Change" (Dorothy Fields & Arthur Schwartz), Stars in Your Eyes

20. If I looked like Aimee MacPherson

Aimee Semple MacPherson, prototypical celebrity evangelist

"If she is not a cold-blooded person,
What is a girl to do?
But if I looked like Aimee MacPherson,
I'd be a good girl too."
-- "A Lady Must Live" (Rodgers & Hart), America's Sweetheart

21. Rudy Vallee's megaphone

Rudy Vallee, crooner

"I've no desire to be alone
With Rudy Vallee's megaphone."
-- "Find Me a Primitive Man" (Cole Porter), Fifty Million Frenchmen

22. I'll go back to Billy Rose

Billy Rose, New York producer/showman

"I think that I'll go back to Billy Rose,
'Cause I'm sick of keeping on my toes."
-- "The First Girl in the Second Row" (Hugh Martin), Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!

23. The one with Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, ex-President

"Hooray for the Yankee dollar,
Inflatable Yankee dollar,
And also the one
With Andrew Jack-son!"
-- "Yankee Dollar" (Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen), Jamaica

24. The verity of Gene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill, playwright

The Provincetown Playhouse still owns
The art of Robert Edmond Jones,
From the classic drama we're a notable secessionist.
We've even made the censors feel
The verity of Gene O'Neill.
The meaning doesn't matter if the manner is expressionist!
-- "Soliciting Subscriptions" (Rodgers & Hart), Garrick Gaities of 1925

25. You're not Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth, great actor whose mediocre brother is now more famous

"You're not Edwin Booth and you'd best face the truth
That it isn't the greasepaint that smells."
-- "You've Got To Be a Little Crazy" (Leo Robin & Sigmund Romberg), The Girl in Pink Tights

26. Write to Mayor Lindsay

Former Mayor of New York

"When you're in a frenzy, write to Mayor Lindsay"
-- "Home" (John Kander & Fred Ebb), 70, Girls, 70

27. Old John L. Lewis

John L. Lewis, union leader

"Here if he'd stay awhile,
Old John L. Lewis might even smile."
-- "Climb Up the Mountain" (Cole Porter), Out of This World

28. Tommy Manville's love

Tommy Manville, oft-married heir to an asbestos tycoon

"Tommy Manville's love is not returned,
He sells asbestos, and he has learned
That with asbestos, he still gets burned."
-- "What Chance Have I With Love?" (Irving Berlin), Louisiana Purchase

29. Elizabeth Arden to do your face

Elizabeth Arden, makeup fiend

"Money isn't everything!
If you're rich, you pay --
Elizabeth Arden to do your face
The night you attend a play!"
-- "Money isn't Everything" (Rodgers & Hammerstein), Allegro

30. A Cole Porter tune

Cole Porter, no resemblance to the guy in Night and Day or De-Lovely

"I need the moon
And a Cole Porter tune.
Those beguines don't begin to beguine
In the afternoon."
-- "Nightlife" (Strouse and Adams), All American

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Musicals Quiz: Drop That Name!

In a shameless act of recycling (and we all know that recycling is wrong), I'm going to re-post a quiz I made up on a musicals newsgroup a couple of years ago. On this newsgroup, people would sometimes post a "lyrics quiz" where they'd post various lines from musical-theatre songs, and you had to identify the song and the show that each line came from. My contribution was a quiz consisting of 30 excerpts from song lyrics, each one mentioning the name of a famous person. Name the song, the show, and the individual's claim to fame.

It's an overly tough quiz -- the product of listening to a lot of relatively obscure cast albums -- but I think it's kind of fun to see how many famous names have been mentioned in musical-theatre songs. In a day or two I'll post the answers.

1. Missus Sheridan's Ann

2. When J.P. Morgan bows, I just nod

3. Truman Capote's balls

4. A fellow named Ben Hogan

5. Marilyn Miller in SUNNY

6. Grover Whalen and his hat

7. Jesse James could shoot

8. The Joe DiMaggio of love

9. Buying tickets for Rosalind Russell

10. Refined L.B. Mayer

11. We got Adam Clayton Powell

12. I'm tired of Richard Dix

13. He fell in love with Oscar Hammerstein

14. Shakespeare will be shakin'

15. Peggy Joyce has a business

16. All men but Bernard Shaw

17. I'm Carmen Miranda

18. C. Aubrey Smith and those other codgers

19. Mr. Havelock Ellis

20. If I looked like Aimee MacPherson

21. Rudy Vallee's megaphone

22. I'll go back to Billy Rose

23. The one with Andrew Jackson

24. The verity of Gene O'Neill

25. You're not Edwin Booth

26. Write to Mayor Lindsay

27. Old John L. Lewis

28. Tommy Manville's love

29. Elizabeth Arden to do your face

30. A Cole Porter tune

Depressing Songs, Cont.

I had a post a couple of months ago about the most depressing songs ever written, but I somehow forgot to mention one of my favorites, from the 1962 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale (script by John Weidman, from his novel about a young hustler trying to make it in the garment trade in the '30s). This is "What Are They Doing To Us Now?" sung by Barbra Streisand -- the young, still incredibly talented, only moderately egomaniacal Streisand whose bio in Playbill described her as "Born in Madagascar and Reared in Rangoon." Composer-lyricist Harold Rome created a genuine life-sucks anthem with an ethnic flavor; a lot of the lyrics in Wholesale create a Yiddish flavor through inverted word order and such. So get the cast album of Wholesale -- an excellent musical that deserves to be remembered for more than Streisand's debut -- and play this song if you really want to reinforce your bad mood:

“What are they Doing To Us Now” by Harold Rome


As we get older, there’s nothing surer,
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
Those little problems all start to pile up
And it gets harder to keep a smile up.
But we keep hoping, as old dreams linger,
That we’ll get lucky some fine day.
Then once again fate gives us the finger,
Once again, with a sigh,
We look up to the sky
With a quizzical eye
And quietly say:


What are they doin’ to us now?
What’s the latest ruin to us now?
Someone up there is gettin’ careless,
What are they doin’ to us now, anyhow?
What are they doin’ to us now?


Makes no difference if a man is slave or king,
Born he always is to pain and suffering.
Naked he’s pushed out his new life to begin,
Ain’t enough the awkward way that he came in?
Then before he understands just why he's here,
Klop, comes from the doc a big smack on the rear.
From then on, continuous without a stop,
Life's the same old story, always klop, klop, klop.

Science keeps advancing, always on the run,
All they seem to do is take from life the fun.
Smoking, oh, no, no, it wears your heart away,
Drinking shrinks for you the liver day by day.
Eating makes you fat, your weight you've got to check,
Sex you do, you don't, you end a nervous wreck.
Future generations we had ought to warn:
Hey there, do yourself a favor, don't get born.

Repeat Refrain

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Poppins Fresh

Watching the new DVD of Mary Poppins reminded me that Dick Van Dyke's terrible accent (in the making-of documentary, Van Dyke cheerfully cites a recent article that named it as one of the twenty worst accents in film history) isn't the most Americanized thing about the movie. Although Pamela Travers insisted on being a consultant on the movie and gave advice freely -- recordings of some of her advice-giving sessions are included in the making-of -- she didn't like the Disney film and thought it wasn't true to what she was writing about, and you can see why. It's not just that Mary Poppins becomes a much nicer person in the movie than she is in the books, where she is intimidating and frankly not terribly pleasant to talk to, like a real nanny. It's that the film's themes are heavily Americanized, or at least calculated to deal with concerns that were uppermost in America in 1963-64.

Basically, the movie version of Mary Poppins portrays an upper middle-class family with two children. The father has a well-paying but unfulfilling white-collar job, and work takes up most of his time, so he rarely sees his kids. The mother is getting heavily involved with the cause of women's rights, and is more interested in social progress than in taking care of the kids. The children therefore spend most of their time with a nanny, but they rebel against a nanny who tries to keep them from having any fun. The father doesn't realize that what his children really want is more attention from their parents; instead he assumes that they need more discipline, so he won't have to worry about what they're up to while he's at work. Meanwhile the father hasn't figured out that he's regimented his own life to the point of endangering his relationship with his children. Mary Poppins comes along to combine fun with a sense of discipline -- teaching the kids good manners and values and cleaning up their room while showing that none of that has to rule out fun and imagination. But the person she really re-educates is the father; he needs to learn this more than his children do.

This is a laundry list of worries about American family and work life in the late '50s and early '60s: the grind of office life, commuters who never see their kids and increasingly leave them in the hands of child-care professionals, concerns about how to balance old-fashioned values with the increasing freedom of choice offered in American life. The idea that it's the parents, not the kids, who really need to learn something is a rather American concept too (and something not usually found in British fiction, where children are usually portrayed as little monsters in need of a good dressing-down). And Bert, a combination of several Travers characters, is sort of a Beatnik character, the free-living, free-wheeling, artistic guy who teaches the stuffed shirts a thing or two.

Re the DVD special features, the commentary is surprisingly good, with many of the participants -- particularly the Sherman brothers, who wrote the songs -- calling attention to important themes and symbols used to convey the film's messages. And as for the inevitable analysis of how the special effects were done... well, the special effects are outstanding in this movie and I do like finding out how they were done. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, in their portion of the commentary, call particular attention to the amazing matte work of Peter Ellenshaw; when George Banks walks to the bank near the end of the film, the scenes of London are all matte drawings by Ellenshaw, a heightened, stylized version of London that feels more real than the real thing. Indeed, this and My Fair Lady the same year were among the last Hollywood-made movies to create an entire world inside the studio instead of going out on location; it works better here than in the rather embalmed-looking Fair Lady, though.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Comedy Cont.

Here, courtesy of a post on Home Theater Forum, are the extras for that collection of six classic comedies that WB Home Video is releasing on March 1 (as usual, they're releasing them separately and also in a box set):

BRINGING UP BABY (2 disc special edition)
Robert Trachtenberg's documentary CARY GRANT: A CLASS APART;
Richard Schickel's THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES: Howard Hawks
Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (2 Disc special edition)
Turner Classic Movies documentary KATHARINE HEPBURN: ALL ABOUT ME -- A SELF PORTRAIT
Richard Schickel's MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES: George Cukor
Two different radio versions with Cary, Kate & Jimmy
Commentary by author Jeannine Basinger

The rare 1930 MGM short THE ROUNDER starring Jack Benny

LEO IS ON THE AIR radio promo and MGM shorts

Turner documentary JEAN HARLOW: THE BLONDE BOMBSHELL, narrated by Sharon Stone;
The 1933 Vitaphone spoof short, "COME TO DINNER."

Vintage shorts and cartoons
Lux Radio Theater version with Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell

I'm always disheartened to see the words "commentary by Peter Bogdanovich," or "special introduction by Peter Bogdanovich," or "Special documentary on name-dropping by Peter Bogdanovich." As I've said before, I can barely, just barely, accept that he should be allowed to talk about his own movies; but he should be kept as far as possible away from other people's movies. ("Oh, this scene reminds me of what Howard said to me and Cybill when I dragged her to dinner with Orson at John Ford's eyepatch-maker's favorite restaurant.") But it's compensated for by the chance to see two episodes of Richard Schickel's PBS miniseries The Men Who Made the Movies -- American television's first exposure to the auteur theory as applied to Hollywood movies -- as well as a short Jack Benny film from 1930, made before he developed the Jack Benny persona we all know and love.

Of the films included in this box, I'd give an alpha to three of them: Bringing Up Baby, To Be or Not to Be and Stage Door (by the brilliant but erratic Gregory La Cava. Libeled Lady is awfully funny too, though haphazardly structured.

As if that's not enough good news, Columbia/Sony appears finally to be getting back in the old movies game; a site has pre-orders for a bunch of old Columbia movies being released on February 22, including -- yes! -- Hawks' Twentieth Century. By the way, doesn't the recent success of The Passion of the Christ make Oscar Jaffe's big idea -- to stage the Passion Play as a big Broadway extravaganza -- seem less commerically unsound?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Haydn -- Go Seek

GRYTPYPE-THYNNE: Moriarty, what are you doing inside that piano?
MORIARTY: I'm hidin'!
GRYTPYPE-THYNNE: Don't be silly -- Haydn's been dead for years.
(The Goon Show)

As an enthusiastic but not particularly dedicated classical music fan, I don't have very strong opinions on whether standards of performance have gotten better or worse. I think that technical standards have gotten better -- there are more orchestras now and excellent playing can be heard even from so-called "provincial" orchestras -- but with the globalization of performing styles, everybody sounds more alike than they used to, so there are fewer really distinctive performers. It's easier to cast a baroque opera than it used to be, but pretty hard to cast a Verdi opera adequately (though I think things are better now than they were in the '80s, when I first discovered opera; "standard-repertoire" singing was pretty disastrous then). HIP -- Historically Informed Performance -- has revealed the vitality and viability of a lot of baroque music, but performances of Romantic music often seem kind of mechanical and halfhearted.

So it's a mixed bag. But I do think there's at least one great composer whose music is performed better today than it was in the past, and that's Haydn. Most of the Haydn recordings in my collection -- and there are a lot, because he's somewhere near my favorite composer -- were made in the last ten years or so. Now, part of the reason the great Haydn recordings tend to be fairly recent is that up until fairly recently, Haydn wasn't performed or recorded all that much. After the Romantics came along, Haydn was admired, for the most part (though Berlioz was openly dismissive of his music), but considered more of a pioneer than a great composer: the man who set the rules for form and structure, which his pupil Beethoven then used to create something really important.

But considering Haydn a less revolutionary Beethoven, or a less tuneful Mozart, wasn't really the problem with the way his music often tends to be performed. The problem is with the image of Haydn's music as basically friendly, charming, genial, easygoing. Thomas Beecham, the British conductor and wag, was the master of this style of Haydn performance. Up until the '50s Beecham was one of the few major conductors performing Haydn with any consistency (most other conductors would occasionally include a Haydn symphony on a program as filler, but Haydn was rarely the main attraction), and he deserves a lot of credit for helping to keep Haydn in the repertoire. But his way of performing Haydn symphonies was to smooth out all the roughness in the music, all the quirks of orchestration, the experiments with sonority and structure, the crude jokes (like the fart joke in Symphony no. 93). To get the sound he wanted out of Haydn, he would rework the scores; when corrected scores of Haydn symphonies became available in the '50s, Beecham refused to use them, claiming that some of Haydn's most unusual musical effects were "unmusical." Essentially a Beecham performance presents a Haydn symphony as a series of pretty tunes skillfully developed. That can be good to listen to, especially as skillfully as Beecham performed them -- but it creates the impression that Haydn was a lightweight compared to Mozart and Beethoven. And this doesn't make sense; Mozart acknowledged Haydn as the greatest composer of his era, and Beethoven, who had a touchy relationship with Haydn, nonetheless was heavily influenced by him. Why drain out all the things that made Haydn's music seem so worth imitating?

Anyway, the idea that Haydn needed to be "charming" above all else is part of the critical lexicon; you'll often read a review of a Haydn piece that says nothing about the approach of the performers or the way the piece sounds in their hands, but just generally praises or condemns it for the amount of abstract "charm" it possesses. For example, the Penguin Guide to Records had this to say about Otto Klemperer's recording of Haydn's Symphony no. 102 (a great recording, unfortunately out of print):

there is little of the magic or poetry that marked the old Beecham set or the warmth and humanity that endeared Walter to us. These are correct, grave and unsmiling performances with little that could be called spontaneous... no amount of repetition has modified the impression of joyless rectitude that these performances communicate.

"Warmth," "humanity," "magic," and "poetry" aren't exactly specific descriptions of what a performance does or doesn't do. Klemperer's Haydn 102 is certainly "unsmiling," though it doesn't neglect the piece's humor (mostly in the finale, which includes such musical jokes as the violins getting stuck on a phrase and apparently unable to remember what comes next); it just takes the serious side of the piece very seriously, and plays up not the comfortable, charming Haydn but the Haydn who constantly surprises his audience. Swift changes of mood, arresting orchestral effects, startling tricks with the development of themes, thrilling moments like the drumroll that ushers in the recapitulation in the first movement: these are all in this symphony, and Klemperer plays them for all their worth, giving the impression that Haydn is not just a predecessor of Beethoven, but the man who did everything Beethoven did, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

Klemperer's Haydn 102 was recorded in 1966 (his other Haydn recordings aren't quite on the same level, due either to the sound or to slow tempos). The '60s was when Haydn performance really started to move up a notch, led by conductors like Leonard Bernstein, who performed and recorded dozens of Haydn works. Many people think that Bernstein was at his very best as a Haydn conductor, and it makes sense, because Haydn's music has an odd kinship with the other composer with whom Bernstein is associated -- Mahler. True, Haydn's symphonies are 20-30 minutes rather than 80-90 minutes. But Haydn's music is an unusual and wonderful combination of simplicity and complexity, folkishness and sophistication; his compositional technique was incredibly sophisticated, but the materials he drew on were often those of folk music, dance, and "found" material (the theme of the finale of his last symphony is supposedly based on the cries of London street vendors), lowbrow materials which are then elaborated and developed into something very highbrow. Mahler, with his combination of the learned and the naive, is that kind of composer too, on a bigger scale. (The interplay of lowbrow and highbrow elements is something that sets Haydn apart from Mozart, who wrote great popular tunes but tended to keep them separate from more elevated moments.)

And of course Haydn had the most outrageous sense of humor and gimmickry in music; few other composers would put a fart joke into an otherwise serious movement, or have the orchestra tune up in the middle of a movement (symphony no. 60) or write a piece that doesn't have an ending (the second string quartet of op. 33). That sense of humor -- sometimes genial, sometimes sardonic -- has to be appreciated by a good Haydn performer. It's not "charming" music; it's funny, it's surprising, it constantly keeps you on your toes as Haydn plays with the conventions he himself established, develops themes in odd ways, and changes the mood and spirit of the piece from moment to moment.

There are still many performers who don't appreciate this, and play Haydn like the harmless friendly uncle of music. But there are quite a few recordings of Haydn that really get that he's about more than charm and smiles, and most of those, as I said, are recent. Here are some Haydn recordings I've particularly enjoyed recently:

- Thomas Fey, a German conductor who studied with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, made some CDs for the Haenssler label that were supposed to be the start of a complete cycle of all 104 Haydn symphonies. Like most such cycles, it came to nothing (the only two complete cycles are by Antal Dorati on Decca and Adam Fischer on Brilliant Classics; the Fischer cycle is, overall, the better one), but the CDs he made are pretty fascinating. Fey constantly experiments with sonority and phrasing; he does more tempo-shifting than is usual in Haydn, encourages the timpani and brass to make a hell of a racket, plays the minuets breathlessly fast and the trios unusually slow. His judgement is sometimes questionable, but it's never dull for a second. I would recommend getting his Haydn CDs while you still can (there are two others he made before he stopped recording for the label, but they seem to be out of print).

- Leonard Bernstein's first and best recording of The Creation is roughly recorded and sung, but it's incredibly exciting -- Bernstein makes the most of every descriptive effect, takes fast tempos very fast and slow ones slower than usual, and just generally pulls all the stops out to show that Haydn's nature-painting is, like nature itself, volatile and unpredictable. It's coupled with a Bernstein recording of Haydn's last Mass, the Harmoniemesse,, that is if anything even more exciting, with a really hair-raising "Dona Nobis Pacem" where the chorus seems to be screaming for peace.

- The Dutch conductor Frans Bruggen has made many recordings of Haydn symphonies, including the famous "Paris" and "London" groups and the earlier, experimental symphonies grouped under the heading of "Sturm Und Drang." All his Haydn symphony recordings, 13 discs' worth, are collected in a boxed set. Not all the recordings are great, but the best of them are -- including the best recording I've heard of one of Haydn's very best symphonies, 98 -- and none are less than interesting; all of them take Haydn seriously without playing down his sense of humor, and the period instruments emphasize the rough, gruff quality that Haydn's music can have sometimes -- very much an influence on Beethoven, and very different from Mozart, who always wanted his music to sound as attractive as possible. If you just want the last 12 symphonies, they're available in a pair of 2 for 1 sets.

- With Haydn's string quartets, the recent recordings by Vienna's HIP group the Mosaiques Quartet are all very good, and you can't go wrong with any of Haydn's quartets from the op. 20 set onward. For a real sleeper, though, try the recording of the six op. 33 quartets by the Apponyi Quartet: fast, exciting, emphasizing all the risk and experimentation in the music. Only available from Germany, but worth it.

- John Eliot Gardiner has made fine HIP recordings of Haydn's six late masses, on Philips.

The one genre in which I can't really recommend Haydn is opera. He wrote a lot of them, and most of them have been recorded at one time or another, but none are revived very often. If you hear an individual Haydn aria, you might wonder why, because a lot of them are very inventive and imaginative, like most of Haydn's music. But when you hear or see a Haydn opera in full, it becomes apparent that Haydn didn't have much of a grip on characters; unlike Mozart, who by age 30 could create a musical portrait of a character in a few bars, Haydn lived more than twice as long without ever really creating memorable characters in music. His oratorios have no characters, at least not characters who exist as individuals; Adam and Eve in The Creation are just generically Man and Woman, observing nature and pledging love. Haydn was brilliant at portraying the natural world in music, and in writing abstract, absolute music. But, perhaps because his job as a Court composer didn't bring him into contact with very many people (Haydn himself said that he was so isolated from the world outside Esterhaza that he was "forced to become original" because he didn't know what the musical conventions were anymore), he never really got a handle on portraying human psychology or human interaction. But Haydn gave us so much -- and continues to give to anyone interested in listening -- that this one limitation in his work isn't really relevant; no one cares that Mahler couldn't write an opera, either.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

TV History Explained

With people talking about how schlocky reality shows seem to be slipping in the ratings in favor of watchable programs, I thought this was as good a time as any to quote from one of my favorite episodes of the second Newhart show. This is "Harris Ankles PIV For Web Post," written and directed by Doug Wyman (who, along with David Mirkin -- a future Simpsons showrunner -- helped turn Newhart from a low-key rural comedy into a bizarre media satire).

The premise is that local TV producer Michael (Peter Scolari) gets his long-awaited chance at a big network job, only to discover that the head of the network -- who seems to be loosely based on MTM and NBC's Grant Tinker -- is only interested in quality programming. Michael, who can't enjoy a show "without a catchy theme song that explains the premise" and utterly hates quality television, is devastated: all his life he's loved schlocky TV, and now nobody seems to want it. But Dick (Bob Newhart) reassures him that his time will come again:

DICK: Michael, I think you're missing an important point here. Your kind of shows -- the shows that you like -- are going to come back.

MICHAEL: You're just saying that to make me feel better.

DICK: No, I'm not. Television always runs in cycles. Remember back in the '70s, that great lineup: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, The Carol Burnett Show...

MICHAEL (disgusted): Dick, don't remind me. And how about that show with the shrink who stuttered?

DICK: Stammered. But, Michael, what came on after that, a few years later? Think. Or, a better clue would be, don't think.

MICHAEL: Three's Company.

DICK: Right. What else?

MICHAEL: Manimal. Supertrain. Sheriff Lobo!

DICK: Hello, Larry!

MICHAEL: Yeah! Dick, you're right! This stupid golden age of television can't last forever, and when it's over, I'll be there, leading the way!

DICK: Michael, I don't doubt it.

MICHAEL: Oh, Dick -- thanks.

DICK: Don't thank me.

MICHAEL: You're right. Maybe I should thank the American people.