Thursday, March 02, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "Sunset Tree"

Yip Harburg was over 70 when he wrote the lyrics for Darling of the Day, a musical version of Arnold Bennett's "Married Alive." The show marked Harburg's first and only collaboration with composer Jule Styne (Gypsy and many others). The source material was just about perfect for a musical: Arnold Bennett's "Married Alive," about a famous but eccentric artist who escapes the boredom of English high society by pretending to be his own valet. But the production ran into out-of-town trouble, brought on mostly by the hiring of an inexperienced director who wasn't up to the job and partly by the disastrous miscasting of the lead role (Vincent Price, who wasn't English, couldn't sing, and couldn't play romantic comedy). By the time the show came into New York, the book had been changed so much that writer Nunnally Johnson took his name off the credits; the show closed after 32 performances. It did have two things going for it: a mostly fine score from Harburg and Styne, and a Tony-winning performance by Patricia Routledge.

"Sunset Tree" is a ballad about the advantages of growing older, of love borne of wisdom rather than youthful impetuousness. It shows a mellower, gentler Harburg, who has tempered his most common theme -- the idea that life is short and we must grab happiness as soon as we can -- with a recognition of the virtues of patience and taking one's time. And note that even though the lyric has a deliberately old-fashioned feel to it (appropriately enough for the period setting), it is all achieved with very simple words and phrases; no flowery syntax for Harburg, just simple, direct imagery that adds up to something strangely beautiful.

When April's dreams are over
And all her songs are sung,
When the years are old and the hills are old
And only our hearts are young,
Then ev'ry sweet small wonder
Will still more wond'rous be,
In the brave new light of a world grown bright
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.
Let youth have its apple blossoms,
Fair on the bough above,
But not so fair as the fruit we share
In the harvest-time of love.
Spring is a young man's fancy
In a world that is fancy-free,
But to know the grace of a warm embrace
When the heart is folly-free
Is to know why that bold leaf turns to gold
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.

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