Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Harold Arlen on Broadway, Part 2

(The first post is here.)

After St. Louis Woman, Arlen didn't have a new show on Broadway for several years. He finally returned in 1954 with House of Flowers, with a most unlikely partner: Truman Capote. Loosely based on one of his short stories, Capote's script was about a Hatian brothel run by Mme. Fleur (Pearl Bailey) and what ensues when one of her girls, Ottilie (Diahann Carroll) falls in love. The story has been described as "a fairy tale with prostitutes," and includes such lines of dialogue as: ""When a man got to punish his wife, that's the first thing he do. Tie her to a tree and give her time to ruminate." The production was racked with problems. The producers hired Peter Brook to direct and George Balanchine to choreograph -- great choices, except that Brook wasn't comfortable with the amount of freedom given to performers in Broadway shows, and tried to get Bailey to tone down her trademark mannerisms; he also made the cast feel ill-at-ease by gathering them on the first day of rehearsal and telling them "I want you to know I'm not prejudiced." And Balanchine, who had done many Broadway shows, wasn't right for this one; according to an interview in the CD booklet, he painstakingly tried to show a bunch of professional Mambo dancers how to Mambo his way. By the time the show limped into New York, both Brook and Balanchine had been replaced by Herbert Ross (though Brook still got credited as the official director).

The show is pretty hopeless, but it lives on because of Arlen's score. His use of Caribbean-flavored music gave the score some unity, but what really leaps out at you is the sheer richness and atmosphere in the music. If George Gershwin usually represented the cheerful side of jazz on Broadway -- peppy, uptempo, busy-city music -- Arlen's jazz was langorous, sort of introspective; musical phrases and single notes are stretched out, phrases are revised and re-examined in mid-song. And Arlen was playing even more games with song structure; he'd always written longer songs than most popular songwriters, but some of the songs in House of Flowers have B sections that are long enough to be separate songs in themselves (the title song) or go off in new directions at the end ("Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree") or build each section out of several different blocks of melodic material ("I Never Has Seen Snow," which adds little tags to what would normally be completed melodic sections). Again, this isn't exactly theatre writing; the big production number, "Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree," devotes five minutes of fast-paced music to a song about people standing still, making for a great song (and a hit, at least at the time), but not much of a theatrical situation. And what keeps the score from being quite on a level with St. Louis Woman is the lyric writing. Arlen wasn't working with Harburg or Mercer this time, though Mercer did do an uncredited polish on a few numbers; instead the lyrics were co-written by Arlen and Capote -- Arlen provided titles and some of the lines, and Capote wrote the final versions of the lyrics -- and they are all right, but sometimes clumsy and rarely as memorable as the music. But the best songs from House of Flowers, especially Carroll's two ballads, "A Sleepin' Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow," are among the best things Arlen, or anyone, ever did.

Incidentally, Carroll is not at her best on the cast recording; she was sick when the recording was made, and therefore sounds kind of hoarse at times. One falsetto high note in "I Never Has Seen Snow" was actually sung by Arlen for the recording.

House of Flowers was not a hit, but three years later, Arlen had a surprise hit with a show that, by all rules of logic, should have flopped: Jamaica. This was Arlen's reunion with Harburg; they hadn't worked together much since Bloomer Girl, because Harburg was writing Broadway shows with other people and he was blacklisted in Hollywood. Harburg conceived Jamaica as one of his whimsical fables, a la Finian's Rainbow: set in a Jamaican fishing village, it concerned a fisherman and his girlfriend, who longs to get away and live the high life in New York. It would be an anti-materialism tale, and would use calypso songs to satirize the commercialism of '50s America. Arlen reportedly wasn't wild about the idea of writing a lot of calypso music, a form he didn't much care for, but he signed onto the project, which was produced by the infamous David Merrick.

The original idea was to have Harry Belafonte as the fisherman, and many of the songs were written with him in mind. But it turned out they couldn't get Belafonte; they could, however, get Lena Horne. So the fisherman's girlfriend, as played by Horne, became the lead character, many of the songs were re-assigned to her, and Harburg's little fable started to lose focus. For the role of the fisherman, Ricardo Montalban was hired; somewhat weird casting, but he was charming, sang passably well, and didn't embarrass himself in wry calypso songs like "The Monkey in the Mango Tree," with great Harburg lyrics:

Hey, man, is it true what they say?
Hey, man, is it true that today
They claim that my brothers and me
Are the predecessors of humanity?...
Hey, man, why you give us bad name?
Hey, man, it's a blight and a shame
To claim, most unbiblically
That this chump could once have been a chimpanzee.

But as the show ran into trouble out of town, largely due to the thin, unfocused, pointless plot, Merrick hit on the solution: just accept the lack of plot, de-emphasize the story as much as possible, and focus all the attention on the best things the show had going for it: Horne, the songs, and the sets. So by the time it got to New York, there was almost nothing left of Harburg's book, and the behind-the-scenes fighting had become legendary, but Horne and the Arlen/Harburg score kept the show running for 553 performances, a solidly profitable run at the time. Merrick had unwittingly revived the formula of the lesser '30s musical comedies: forget the plot, forget the theme, just concentrate on the star performer and his or her specialties. It worked in the '30s and it worked again in the '50s.

The score is indeed wonderful; the cast album is one of my favorites to just sit down and listen to (the only CD version available at present, unfortunately, doesn't include the overture). Ultimately, though, it's lesser Arlen; many of the calypso songs kind of sound the same, and while all the songs are enjoyable, not one of them became an all-time classic on the level of "Come Rain or Come Shine" or "A Sleepin' Bee" or even "Right as the Rain." Horne reportedly expressed some disappointment that none of her songs were on that level; perhaps that was one of the reasons Arlen and Harburg dusted off an old song they'd written for her to sing in the movie Cabin in the Sky, "Ain't it the Truth" (it got cut from that movie) and interpolated it into the show. The lines about "You got to get your possum" and the mock-Gospel stuff made no sense coming from the character Horne was supposed to be playing, but it was Act 2 and character had been thrown out the window long ago. It was that kind of show.

Nevertheless, the score is a delight. "I Don't Think I'll End it All Today" features one of Arlen's catchiest tunes with one of the most gruesome lyrics ever written (basically, the singer explains that because he/she is so happy, he/she won't commit suicide in the following horrible ways). "Coconut Sweet" is a gorgeous, reflective ballad that's unusually long and complexly structured even for Arlen, and Harburg matches it with a lyric where the words themselves seem to make music; my favorite line from that song is: "When you smile at me/Spring tumble out of the tree." Many of the songs are vehicles for Harburg's spoofs of '50s culture and materialism, like the addictively catchy "Push De Button," about the joys of going automated, and "Yankee Dollar," a cynical calypso about the joys of fleecing American tourists, and the eleven o'clocker, "Napoleon," where a jazzy, laid-back Arlen tune accompanies a list of great historical figures who are now known only as products, teaching Harburg's favorite lesson, that nothing ever lasts and we have to get our fun while we can:

Napoleon's a pastry,
Get this under your brow:
All these bigwig controversials
Are just commercials now.
Better get your jug of wine and loaf of love
Before that final bow.

Ultimately, then, Jamaica is not the best of Arlen, and like all Arlen's scores, it feels like a collection of pop songs rather than true theatre music. But with Arlen and Harburg at only a little less than their best, and with Lena Horne singing most of the songs (the late Ossie Davis also gets a couple of numbers), and a great brassy orchestra, it adds up to one of the most entertaining cast albums of the '50s; if you can get it, get it, because you'll never be able to stop playing "Push De Button."

Arlen's last show, Saratoga, didn't have a lot to recommend it, and I don't have a lot to say about it here. Based on Edna Ferber's Saratoga Trunk, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, directed by Morton Da Costa (The Music Man) and starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence (West Side Story), it's one of those things that should at least have been an interesting failure. But the show was in trouble from the moment Da Costa decided to write the script himself, and the score was hampered by the fact that Arlen fell ill during the tryouts; a couple of the songs have music not by Arlen but by Mercer (one of them was "The Men Who Run the Country," an inappropriately jaunty song about evil robber barons), and the ones Arlen wrote himself aren't that much better. There was one good song, "Goose Never Be a Peacock," sung by the great contralto Carol Brice, but even that wasn't all that good, for Arlen. It was an anticlimactic ending to Arlen's Broadway career.

So Arlen had two shows that ran over 500 performances, one show that was considered a success at the time (Hooray For What), and three flops -- a .500 batting average, not at all bad on Broadway. Arlen wasn't an unsuccessful Broadway composer, but he was never a natural one; he always wrote music that happened to be sung in a theatre, rather than theatre music, the kind that can bend to character, situation, choreography, direction. He was more at home in pop and movie songwriting, where everything could stop for his songs, rather than his songs being just part of the theatrical effect. But when I listen to the recordings of House of Flowers, St. Louis Woman and Jamaica, and some songs from Bloomer Girl, I'm glad he kept trying.


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