Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Harold Arlen On Broadway, Part 1

Terry Teachout, commemorating the centenary of Harold Arlen, remarks that "he never wrote a successful Broadway musical." But while I agree with Teachout that Arlen, one of America's greatest pop songwriters, was not ideally suited for writing theatre music, his Broadway track record was actually pretty good -- two or three hit shows, plus three respectable failures. Not a bad batting average by Broadway standards.

Arlen was not, as I said, a natural theatre composer. Theatre music is all about doing things quickly, characterizing in broad strokes: creating a melodic profile for a song that immediately sets mood or character. Arlen's songs tended to be longer and more complex than most composers', and they often don't have an instantly recognizable melodic profile or musical "hook". Though he was a great melodist, his melodies don't always seem distinctive from the first bar; a song like "Come Rain or Come Shine" starts with a seemingly commonplace melodic idea and then plays tricks with it, develops it, until by the end you realize it's the most beautiful thing you've ever heard. But that's musical development, not character development; characterization in musical theatre tends to be best accomplished with short, easily memorable phrases, whether it's Wagner's leitmotifs or the six-note motif that launches "Some Enchanted Evening."

And yet, as I've said, Arlen's Broadway career was quite successful overall. His first book show was Hooray For What! written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse from a story by the lyricist, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. The story is typical Harburg, whimsical but very pointed satire: a scientist (Ed Wynn) invents a doomsday formula and spies from various nations try to get it; when he accidentally mixes up the formula into one that causes peace and brotherhood, the other countries lose interest. The only song that had a long life outside of the show was "Down With Love," a great mock torch song: "Down with things that give you that well-known pain,/Take that moon and wrap it in cellophane." Another song from the show, "God's Country," was interpolated into the movie version of Babes in Arms. As for the rest of the songs, I'll have to plead ignorance; but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were very good. We are talking, after all, about Arlen and Harburg just two years before they did The Wizard of Oz. The show itself was quite successful, running 200 performances, which believe it or not was a good run in the Broadway of 1937. But the show was too closely associated with its star, Ed Wynn, to get a movie version or a revival.

When Arlen and Harburg returned from Hollywood, it was to write the score for Bloomer Girl (1944). Set at the time of the Civil War, it concerned the daughter of a Northern hoop-skirt manufacturer who is converted to Women's Suffrage by her Aunt, Dolly Bloomer, while romancing a young Southern gentleman who leaves her to join the Confederate army (I don't write 'em, I just summarize 'em). In essence it was an attempt to cash in on the success of Oklahoma!; everyone was scrambling to create their own Americana musical, and this was one of the more successful ones, running 644 performances. Arlen's score, though, is uneven. For the numbers involving the black characters, he was in his element, and came through with the ode to freedom "The Eagle and Me" (not a bathetic hymn but a joyful uptempo celebration), and the prison number "I Got a Song." Harburg came through here with some of his best lyrics, too, in that unique voice that no other lyricist ever came close to. Stephen Sondheim has cited a Harburg line from "The Eagle and Me" as his favorite: "Ever since that day when the world was an onion." I lean toward the refrain from "I Got a Song" as the ultimate in Harburg:

I got a railroad and a woman and a freedom song,
Gotta sing 'em while you're livin', 'cause you're dead so long.

The big ballad from the show, "Right as the Rain," is one of Arlen's best, too; instead of a conventional AABA structure, it basically presents the same melodic cell four times, but each time it appears, it's heavily revised, getting more and more passionate each time. There was a good comic ballad, "Evelina." And there was a funny comedy number about women's rights, "It Was Good Enough For Grandma (But It Ain't Good Enough For Us)," though this was more Harburg's showcase than Arlen's.

But some of the numbers are either kind of nondescript ("T'morra, T'morra," a good musical idea that just keeps getting repeated over and over again, as if Arlen were Stephen Sondheim or somebody), or just don't sound like Arlen is doing what he does best. His solution to the "period" setting was to make many of the numbers waltzes, and Arlen's waltzes, unlike, say, Richard Rodgers', don't show him at his best. So though Bloomer Girl was supposed to be an "integrated" musical in the style of Oklahoma!, the overall effect of its score is the same as that of a typical '30s show: a bunch of good pop songs, separated by plot numbers that seem like filler in between the hits. Another problem with the show, at least on the cast album, is that it wasn't very well-sung; Celeste Holm, who played the lead -- hired on the basis of her success as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! -- was a fine actress but didn't have enough voice for numbers like "Right as the Rain"; I'm told that her replacement, Nanette Fabray, was better.

Arlen's next show, St. Louis Woman, was not a hit, but its score has held up better than that of Bloomer Girl. Mostly this was because of the story: with its New Orleans setting and nearly all-black cast, Arlen didn't need to reach to find an appropriate musical style for the score; he just had to do what he did best, bluesy brilliance, in song after song. And with Johnny Mercer doing the lyrics, the score turned out magnificently, so rich in great numbers that one of the best-loved songs, "I Wonder What Became of Me," is one that was dropped before the Broadway opening. Again, this isn't exactly theatrical writing; most of the songs are either pop numbers that have some vague relationship to the character or situation ("Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home," "Come Rain or Come Shine," the two nearly-identical but hilarious numbers for Pearl Bailey) or are just expository filler numbers on a higher level than usual ("Cakewalk Your Lady," "Li'l Augie is a Natural Man"). But in fairness to Arlen and Mercer, there were so many problems with the book, and the show as a whole, that there were hardly any coherent character or story points to write for. The show was so haphazardly structured that it couldn't even put the songs in appropriate places; one number, "Ridin' On the Moon," builds to a huge climax only to lead directly into a low-voltage dialogue scene with the same character, which makes the previous number an interruption of the scene instead of its primary focus. But none of this matters much on a recording, and the score of St. Louis Woman is arguably Arlen's best work.

It's interesting to note, if you listen to cast albums of Arlen shows, how he passed on his own mannerisms as a performer to the people who performed in his shows. One of his trademarks was to do a little catch in the throat that sounded almost like a yelp ("Man for sa-AI!--le"). It was rooted in jazz, of course, but it was also rooted in the singing of Arlen's father, a cantor in a synagogue; this fusion of African-American and Jewish elements was the basis of Arlen's style as a composer and a performer, and you can hear that yelp being done by many performers of Arlen's music, from David Brooks in Bloomer Girl to Diahann Carroll in House of Flowers to, yes, Ricardo Montalban in Jamaica.

Next post: Arlen in the '50s.

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