Sunday, December 26, 2010

Department of Things I Should Remember But Don't

Does anybody recall which Warner Brothers cartoons used the song "A Gal in Calico" on the soundtrack? I know at least one of them did -- I even remember the arrangement -- but the name of the cartoon I heard it in escapes me for the moment.

The song, by Arthur Schwartz (music) and Leo Robin (lyrics) was the biggest hit from Warners' 1946 musical The Time, the Place and the Girl (another successful song, "A Rainy Night In Rio," was famously sung by Bugs Bunny in "Long-Haired Hare"). Warner Brothers tended to have rather good original songs in its musicals -- think of Schwartz and Frank Loesser's terrific score for Thank Your Lucky Stars, or the batch of fine Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn songs in Doris Day's star-making Romance on the High Seas -- though they were weaker than most of the other studios when it came to staging musical numbers; after Busby Berkeley left, they rarely had directors and choreographers who could do more than just make the number look like a replica of a middling stage play that never existed.

The movie is also a reminder that Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan were the studio's big musical stars until Day came along. Which is another sign of a studio that doesn't quite have the roster it needs to put together top-flight musicals: Morgan and Carson were pleasant personalities, but not really above-the-title stars on the level of the people the other studios could offer. It seems that until they started investing heavily in stage musical adaptations (see below) Warners didn't really put a high premium on the production of musicals after Berkeley left (and with occasional exceptions like Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Gershwin and Porter biopics); stars who were good musical performers, like Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman and James Cagney, were (mostly) kept away from musicals. (Carson and Morgan were in non-musicals too, but in non-musicals it was made clear that they were not major stars.) Things were different at Fox, which would star an actor in both musicals and non-musicals if he could sing (Don Ameche) and even if he couldn't (Tyrone Power).

Update: I guess posting this was what I needed to jog my memory, because now I remember the cartoon that used this song: "Slick Hare," which came out less than a year after the movie did. It might have been one of those cases where Stalling was tipped off about a potential hit song from a movie that hadn't actually been released (or maybe even finished) yet.

I'm sorry about the idiotic captions the uploader has inserted into the cartoon (just as "A Gal In Calico" starts to play, yet) but it was the only upload I could find on YouTube.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jack Warner and Stage Adaptations

The Man Who Came to Dinner is on as I write, an adaptation of a stage play that sticks as close to the original as a movie can get away with: though it "opens up" the play by adding some outdoor scenes or moving some scenes to different rooms in the house, it carries over large chunks of the play unchanged, and doesn't try that hard to disguise the fact that the whole play (like most stage comedies of the era) took place on a single set.

I'm not saying this to criticize the movie, just to make an observation about stage adaptations from this studio, Warner Brothers: it seems to me like when Jack Warner bought a play, he preferred to adapt it for the screen with as few changes as possible. At WB in the '40s, '50s and '60s, Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations often included a relative minimum of changes to the structure or story of the original play, and frequently used people from the original production.

The same year as Dinner, WB also adapted James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's play The Male Animal. While this adaptation was tinkered with more than most (the ending was changed to something more upbeat), a lot of it is very faithful, and Warner hired the play's original writer and star, Elliott Nugent, to direct the film. The Voice of the Turtle, also based on a play that starred Nugent, has to do some rewrites because of censorship, but is still pretty recognizably a filmed play.

Then you have the '50s Warner productions that are almost like co-productions with the original Broadway production. It started with A Streetcar Named Desire: same director as the original, much of the same cast, with one principal role (Blanche) re-cast with a movie star. This pattern was used in the two George Abbott adaptations, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees: everybody from the Broadway show except one star. (I hate to say it, but Pajama Game might be better off if more of the Broadway cast had been replaced. John Raitt and Carol Haney don't come off well on the screen.) When director Mervyn LeRoy came back to Warner Brothers, most of his work was on extremely stagey stage adaptations like Gypsy and Mary, Mary.

There are some WB stage adaptations that take bigger liberties. Arsenic and Old Lace makes some real changes to the play, probably because the director, Frank Capra, had more say over the script. But on the other hand, when Alfred Hitchcock made Rope and Dial M For Murder for Warners he didn't even bother including the obligatory outdoor scenes.

Other studios had a range of attitudes about how to adapt a play. MGM tended to be pretty faithful to stage plays (especially if George Cukor was directing) and less faithful to musicals. While over at Fox, wholesale rewriting was often the rule -- look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which has almost nothing to do with the play. Compare Warner's My Fair Lady to Fox's The Sound of Music the following year. The former uses almost the same exact script as the original play, all of the same songs, and even similar sets and costumes. The Sound of Music, even before the director came onto the project, had been rewritten and re-shaped quite a bit.

That this was a Warner preference seems to be confirmed by his biggest project after he left his studio: He may have decided to re-cut 1776, but it was also his decision to do most of it on one set with most of the original Broadway cast.

I don't know if this preference for more-or-less faithful adaptations is addressed in any Warner biographies. It might just be part of his economy-mindedness: don't waste time adding things to a script that's already been successful, and don't build a lot of new sets or go outdoors more than necessary. When his lieutenant Hal Wallis went out on his own, he had an approach to stage adaptations that was a lot like Warner's (in Boeing Boeing and other such claustrophobic films based on successful plays), so it might be part of the whole studio's aesthetic.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Jon D'Agostino

As the local Archie buff I should say something about the death of artist, inker and letterer Jon D'Agostino. His best-known credit is probably lettering the first Spider-Man story. He also did a lot of work as a penciller, including Charlton's Archie rip-off "Freddy." But his most distinctive and interesting work came after he joined the exodus to Archie -- following Dan DeCarlo but preceding his Marvel trainee Stan Goldberg -- where he mostly worked as an inker.

D'Agostino's inking style is similar to, though just distinguishable from, that of his friend Joe Sinnott; in fact, Sinnott spent several years moonlighting at Archie, picking up some of D'Agostino's workload and inking some of D'Agostino's own pencils. I have trouble describing it technically, but it's distinguished by a very solid and slick look, a less cartoony approach than most humor-comics inkers took.

The artist D'Agostino inked most frequently was Goldberg, whose pencils can sometimes be unsteady or "swimmy" because he works so fast. (Al Hartley was the same way. Dan DeCarlo was the only one of the ex-Marvel guys who could produce consistently good-looking work while turning out that much material, and he's the only one of them whose work looked more or less the same no matter who was inking.) With D'Agostino, Goldberg's art never looked that way, because he polished it up and gave it a sense of weight.

D'Agostino was Goldberg's main inker on most of the crazy adventure stories in Life With Archie and Archie at Riverdale High did in the '70s and '80s. He also inked for Gene Colan on the equally bizarre Jughead's Time Police, and for Bob Bolling on a number of stories (making Bolling's pencils look astonishingly like Goldberg's).

Here is an excerpt from one of the stories from perhaps the weirdest of the many weird experiments at Archie in the '70s: the attempt to transform Betty and Me into a soap-opera parody in the style of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Frank Doyle did the writing as usual (having characters repeat stuff we already read in the captions was a joke he got mileage out of for 45 years), Goldberg did all the pencils, and D'Agostino did all the inks.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Non-Canadian Thanksgiving

Generally, I like cynical or at least disatrous Thanksgiving stories better than sentimental ones, and I prefer present-day Thanksgiving stories to stories of the Pilgrims. So it's no wonder I've always liked Art Davis's "Holiday For Drumsticks." Like a number of his cartoons it gets by more on the wackiness of the animation than the actual gags or the way they're timed, but that's fine. And the casually violent old hillbilly couple (both voiced by Mel Blanc) are really funny.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rescued From the Trunk

I recently got to talk to Hugh Martin (Meet Me In St. Louis and much more) on the occasion of his autobiography, which was quite a thrill for me. In preparation, I listened or re-listened to a few of his scores, and came away impressed as always by how talented he was in every area -- though because he could do so many things, he never produced as large a body of work as he might have if he'd stuck to songwriting. And of course many of his best songs were written for projects that didn't do well, though that's a common problem. "An Occasional Man," a song I've written about several times, appeared in a movie called The Girl Rush that Martin calls the worst he was ever involved with.

Another fine Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane score (mostly Martin, it seems) was written for a not-terrible but not-exactly-good movie called Athena, a typical product of mid-'50s MGM when they were starting to ease up on the musical business and basically burning off contracts for musical performers they'd signed up. Esther Williams conceived the story, of a girl from a family of fitness fanatics, as a vehicle for herself, and was upset when the studio took the story away from her and gave it to Jane Powell instead. The rest of the cast was a mix of regular MGM contractees (Debbie Reynolds) and new signings who never really worked out for the studio (Vic Damone, Edmund Purdom). It's a mess, but the score has two of Martin's best songs, the ballad "Love Can Change the Stars" and the uptempo "I Never Felt Better."

Another song, "Faster Than Sound," was cut from the final print of the film, though it turned up as a bonus on a soundtrack CD in the '90s. It was written for Damone, and it was a song about the Jet Set and the way air travel was making the world smaller (with a wink, in the verse, to the new promise of space travel). If it had made it into the film, it would have ranked as one of the best Jet Set songs of the era; unlike "Come Fly With Me," which is about using air travel to lend some spice to monogamy, "Faster Than Sound" is about the hedonism of the Jet Set life, where you can go anywhere, do anything, and lead multiple lives with multiple sexual partners. It's a male version of "An Occasional Man" in that way. I find Damone's performance a bit somnolent, which may help explain why it was cut -- it's a long song and he makes it sound long.

Martin liked the song and didn't want to lose it, so ten years later, when he wrote the musical High Spirits, he re-worked the song so it could be sung by Tammy Grimes' character to describe the joys of being a ghost. Apart from some transpositions and adjustments to the melodic line, the lyrics are revised to eliminate references to jet travel, and to reflect the fact that it's being sung by a woman.

The original version has the better orchestration, the second version has the snappier tempo (plus a Martin choral arrangement, which helps). But I don't think it really works as a song about a ghost, because it sort of kills the point of the song, as well as being at odds with the point of the show -- when Elvira sings about doing physical things and enjoying the company of men, that conflicts with the fact that she's trying to kill off her living husband so she can be together with him. (In one of the songs actually written for the show, she sings that "I'm merely thin air/When we're sharing a kiss.") So it's an awkward fit. I asked Martin about it, briefly, and he agreed that the original version was better.

But that's how "trunk songs" -- written for one show and used in another -- often work: the lyrics can be adjusted to fit the new show, but the point often winds up being awkward or not quite relevant. Which is why trunk material, very common in the '30s, became less and less common as shows became more integrated (Leonard Bernstein re-used a lot of unused music in West Side Story, but always with new lyrics).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Staging an Animated Song

I was looking at "Gay Purr-ee" again the other day, a movie that is less than the sum of its parts but will always have a following because the parts are so interesting (Judy Garland fans, Harold Arlen fans, Chuck Jones fans, and UPA fans can all find something of value in it even though it's none of those people's best work). One thing that occurred to me this time is that staging a song for animation can be surprisingly tricky.

The temptation in a cartoon musical, and one that Abe Levitow and Chuck Jones and the rest of the team didn't really avoid here, is just to illustrate the lyrics. So in the "Money Cat" song, there's a physical image to match most of the images in the lyric, including "bottle poppers" and having your "heart set" on something. It's like a live-action musical number where the singer acts out everything he or she sings about, and much of it is redundant: if they're singing about it, we don't need to see every bit of it illustrated.

This is a particular problem with these songs, because Yip Harburg was known for packing his lyrics with images that are at once very specific and hard to translate into physical terms -- in fact, that's arguably a problem with the score, that unlike Arlen and Harburg's songs for The Wizard of Oz, these songs don't have deceptively simple images and can seem over-sophisticated for a movie about talking cats. (In that they reflect the tone of the movie, which is also trying to load on more sophistication than the story can handle.)

If you compare the staging of "When I See an Elephant Fly," a song with (by its nature) lots of specific physical images, the crows don't act out a lot of the images -- and when they do act them out, it's in a simple way, by gesticulating; they don't contort themselves into the shape of baseball bats. The staging works with the song rather than just mimicking it.

Of course, to stage a song that way you more or less have to have full animation -- if the characters can't act in an individualized way, then they can't do much that isn't in the lyrics. With Gay Purr-ee, a movie that emphasizes layout and design over animation, the option to concentrate on acting and characterization may not have been available; certainly "Roses Red, Violets Blue" (an Arlen/Harburg song so typical of their work that I'm kind of amazed it was newly written for this film) seems a little lost when it comes to patches in the lyrics that don't led themselves to illustration -- when that happens, it's just Mewsette standing there and singing, or long shots of the countryside.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Uninformative Trailer

Thad knows (as do most people within earshot) how much I love Artists and Models, so I thank him profusely for uploading the trailer after he bought a copy off ebay; here's his own post about it.

As he notes, and as you can see below, the trailer doesn't really tell you much about the film. Most trailers try to oversell the story, but this does the exact opposite, leaving out most of the satire and all the crazy Cold War spy stuff from the last third. It even soft-pedals the film's status as a cheesecake calendar come to life, which you'd think would be the absolute first thing a trailer would want to play up -- but to do that, they would have had to include Eva Gabor in there, and she only appears once the spy plot starts up.

It makes me wonder if the missing plot points from the spy section, which I've written about before, might be a sign that they weren't even sure about including that part in the movie at all. With a few reshoots it would actually have been possible to create a different ending for the picture (maybe right after the title number at the ball). Or maybe not.

But I do get the impression the studio -- or Wallis -- thought the movie's weaknesses were concentrated in that final section, which would explain why it was allowed to go with several sequences written but not shot, and why it doesn't appear in the trailer. Many people agree that the movie falls apart once the spies come in, so they wouldn't have been far out if they had believed this, but I personally feel like the "fever dream" aspect of the film is enhanced by the fact that it gets crazier as it goes on, until by the end it resembles one of the nonsensical comic books that have destroyed Jerry Lewis's mind. That steadily increasing lunacy, after starting like a sort-of-normal Martin and Lewis movie, is one of the things that made it so influential for the French New Wave.

The trailer doesn't include any "outtakes" either - none of Shirley MacLaine's "The Bat Lady" number, which was described in some of the publicity (she was supposed to do it while "flying" on wires) but never seen, and possibly never shot at all. As I said, it's a long movie and it was over budget, despite being part of a series that was supposed to turn a big profit on relatively small investments (like Wallis's later series of Elvis movies, though those were even cheaper). It might be that they just ran out of money or time and pulled the plug on that musical number, as well as various plot points.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

What About Paul Mazursky?

Sad about the death of Jill Clayburgh, who I really liked in An Unmarried Woman. She was one of a number of unlikely female stars of the '70s; a notoriously bad time for female leads in movies, the women who got those few juicy parts were often not larger-than-life personalities or stunning beauties, but performers like Clayburgh and Diane Keaton who seemed as close as movies get to presenting average, cute, charming people.

Since Unmarried Woman was probably her best role, the news gets me to thinking: why isn't the film's writer-director, Paul Mazursky, mentioned more often as one of the great directors of the '70s? Not that he's exactly forgotten; the L.A. Critics' Association just announced that they're going to present him with a lifetime achievement award. But when people talk about the '70s generation, I don't hear Mazursky's name come up very often, even though in my opinion he's one of the most interesting directors of that era. Maybe he suffers from the fact that his debut, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, is probably his best-known film and one that's obviously dated (though no more so than the other seminal films of that year, like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and even Wild Bunch).

But his '70s films are often quite wonderful and rarely less than interesting; unlike Woody Allen he has the gift of examining characters who aren't exactly like him, and character studies like Harry and Tonto and Unmarried Woman still work very well for me. And of course he was a fine director of actors. Art Carney won an Oscar for Harry and Tonto, yet hardly anybody talks about the movie, which I really like.

His career took a more commercial turn in the '80s and flamed out in the '90s, but neither of these things -- going Hollywood and burning out -- are unusual for directors of the '70s generation. (Some of his '80s films are pretty good; they're just slicker and more studio-ish -- more '80s, in other words.) Maybe his rather pompous public persona has obscured his moviemaking, but that hasn't stopped Peter Bogdanovich's early films from being appreciated. And the fact that he's a familiar presence as an actor might also get in the way of his reputation as a director, though I don't think this is a situation like with Sydney Pollack, who was genuinely more distinctive as an actor than director.

It may be that except for Bob & Carol he doesn't really have a "signature" film the way Allen had Annie Hall -- he could direct actors to Oscars and nominations but never got nominated for Best Director. But I think Mazursky is an uneven but important New Hollywood director whose work is waiting for a second look.

A Stan Goldberg Request

A reader asked me if I had this comic story, and I do: Reggie and Me # 28 (March 1968), an issue-length story that probably represents some of Stan Goldberg's earliest work for Archie comics. With Archie having crushed most of its humor competitors and Marvel phasing out its humor titles after the short-lived attempt to convert them to romance comics, Goldberg followed the Dan DeCarlo path and started to move from Millie the Model to Archie. Though he would continue to contribute to Millie and other Marvel titles for several hears, he asked Marvel to credit the art to Sol Brodsky so he wouldn't officially be moonlighting with them; in effect, he was part of the Archie stable from 1968 onward and has continued to be there to this day.

Around the same time that Goldberg came over from Marvel, Al Hartley also moved from Marvel to Archie, and for the same reason: the non-superhero work was drying up at Marvel and he wasn't a superhero artist. (Stan Lee tried Hartley on one Thor story, and it was clear that superpowered action was not his thing any more than teen hijinks were Steve Ditko's.) And also around this time, Archie editor Richard Goldwater decided to change the system for assigning covers: whereas each artist had usually gotten to do a certain number of covers, starting about 1967 Dan DeCarlo became the main cover artist for nearly all the company's major titles, no matter who was drawing the contents of the book. After they added some new titles, Goldberg was given a lot of covers too, presumably because his style was the closest to DeCarlo's. Other artists would only get to do a cover when DeCarlo or Goldberg simply weren't available. In fact I don't know that Samm Schwartz, who had done many covers in the '50s and '60s, ever got to do a cover for a single issue of Jughead after he came back in 1970; it was always DeCarlo or Goldberg.

So it's this period, 1967-8, that really created what is now thought of as the "Archie House Style," defined as the DeCarlo style. By giving the covers to DeCarlo and bringing over two of his Marvel colleagues, the Goldwater family was obviously trying to standardize the comics and give them an overall look. (The prolific veteran artists, Harry Lucey and Samm Schwartz, were "grandfathered," allowed to keep working in their accustomed styles; but new artists were apparently told to draw like DeCarlo.) Hartley certainly DeCarlo-ized his style a bit when he went to Archie; his Marvel style, on Patsy Walker, was more realistic and less cartoony.

Goldberg, of course, is a chameleon, someone who can always adapt to whatever style his company needs. When DeCarlo left Millie to work full-time at Archie, Stan Lee put Goldberg on the title, and he turned out work that was... not DeCarlo, not even a DeCarlo imitation exactly, but something close enough to make the reader feel like there hadn't been a change in style. When Millie went soap opera, Goldberg completely changed his style, only to change back when it went back to comedy. Like I said, a chameleon.

Back to Archie, though, the DeCarlo-ization of the style had its good and bad points. The good was that with Goldberg and Hartley on board, two men almost as fast as DeCarlo himself, Archie was able to meet the new demand created by a) the collapse of its competitors and b) the success of Filmation's cartoon series. (The Archie regulars were not generally as fast as the Marvel people. Harry Lucey was not slow, but according to Victor Gorelick, he wasn't a workaholic: he would do as many pages as he needed to get the amount of money he needed. Bob Bolling was, by his own admission, a slow and methodical worker.)

The problem from a comics fan's standpoint is that standardization is just that, standardization, and a comic isn't as much fun to look at when everybody's trying to draw like the one head guy. (This is also one of my problems with Harvey Comics, where everything -- with the exception of some of Ernie Colón's wilder stuff -- either is Warren Kremer or looks like Warren Kremer.) This is a much bigger problem for me in humor comics, where much of the fun and variety is in the drawing styles, than in superhero comics.

Another thing about the Marvel infusion was that it seemed to point up the Goldwater family's weakness at developing talent. I may be too harsh, since many comics companies had trouble adding to their talent base. It's like animation, for that matter: Warner Brothers cartoons depended almost completely on the talent base that Leon Schlesinger assembled in the '30s. And at Archie Comics, the talent base was primarily Harry Shorten's; as editor of MLJ/Archie, he brought in most of the important artists and writers. It wasn't a talent pool put together all at once; first there was Bob Montana, Harry Lucey, Samm Schwartz, Joe Edwards and Bill Vigoda -- the young men who joined in the '40s and created or developed the humor titles. Shorten hired Frank Doyle as a writer in 1951 (on the recommendation of another writer, Ray Gill) and got Dan DeCarlo on a part-time basis the same year. Finally he signed up Bob Bolling, Bob White and Dexter Taylor just before quitting, reportedly because John Goldwater refused to make him a partner.

When Richard Goldwater took over as editor, he clearly had some good ideas; in fact, the quality of the monthly titles probably improved overall under Goldwater's editorship. (Shorten treated them more as grab-bag titles, while Goldwater moved more toward giving each title its own regular artist and its own distinct look and feel: Betty and Veronica became DeCarlo's title, Archie became mostly Lucey's, and so on.) He also expanded the brand by introducing adventure titles (Life With Archie) and oddball humor (Mad House). But in terms of bringing in new talent, he doesn't seem to have had Shorten's track record, except on Mad House where he hired George Gladir to write and the young Orlando Busino to do a lot of the art. This is partly because superhero comics were taking off again and young artists were more interested in doing those. (Neal Adams was an Archie discovery, but he'd come there to work with Simon and Kirby on The Fly and only did the regular Archie pages after Simon wouldn't hire him. As soon as superhero work became available elsewhere, he took it.) But a lot of the new artists and writers who did emerge at Archie in the '60s and '70s were either mediocre (Dick Malmgren, Gus LeMoine) or DeCarlo clones (DeCarlo's son Dan Jr.). And so the Archie company was dependent on two talent pools -- Shorten's and Stan Lee's -- but didn't have new people coming in to freshen things up.

Now, the Goldberg story itself. Goldberg started out working mostly on low-selling titles, of which Reggie and Me was undoubtedly one of the lowest. (Poor Reggie; he's never really had a successful title of his own. Even Veronica now has her own reasonably popular title, and he doesn't.) They tried several things to make the title work, never really settling on a style for it; with this issue, the idea apparently was to do a book-length story, though it's really more four separate stories that happen to be linked.

The uncredited script is clearly the company workhorse Frank Doyle, though it's neither one of the best nor worst of his 10,000 Archie scripts. It's pretty standard stuff, maybe a little more campy than usual, and a few more puns than usual from a writer who wasn't usually very inclined toward puns. (A lot of Doyle's stories around this time were trying to be more over-the-top wacky, to respond to the success of campier, wackier entertainment, particularly on television.) I do like the line about "the Jolly Green Clyde," whatever that means, but otherwise the main point of interest is the Goldberg art.

That art as you'd expect based on his Millie work -- it's like DeCarlo except a bit looser and less slick. Plus the women are a little less voluptuous than in DeCarlo's art, and the men tend to hunch over a lot, like they have bad backs. Goldberg also sometimes draws the characters in circle instead of square panels, which he later stopped doing but which I like, since it's sort of a '50s throwback.

Here, for comparison, is the issue's cover, by DeCarlo:

And here's the story, by Goldberg:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Under-Recorded Musicals

As a fan of musicals, I long ago learned to accept that many of the pre-1943 musicals are unlikely to receive a full-fledged cast recording: these shows were created before Oklahoma! popularized the Original Cast Album in the U.S. (original cast recordings had been much more common in England up until then) and before the LP made it possible to record most of the important numbers in a score. Some shows have been reconstructed and recorded in their original form, mostly when someone is willing to pay for them -- the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization has paid for several Rodgers and Hart musicals to be recorded (though not enough of them; most of their '20s scores lack full recordings) and the Gershwin estate often does the same with musicals by George and/or Ira Gershwin. But this is always going to be an under-recorded part of musical history; the supply is too great and consumer demand for recordings too small.

There's another category of under-recorded musical, which is a post-Oklahoma! musical that was recorded but, for one reason or another, never really got a fully satisfying recording. Usually this happens with musicals that have extremely long scores that couldn't be contained on a single LP; they had to undergo cutting and pruning for that purpose.

The show whose lack of a really complete recording is most frustrating to me is Carousel. It has probably the longest score of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show (as well as possibly the best), and no single-disc version could accommodate it. The original cast version, on 78s, really gives only a vague idea of what the score was like -- and it also incorporates several arrangements that were thrown out soon after the recording was made. (Robert Russell Bennett's original version of the "Carousel Waltz," used on the recording, was replaced with a more symphonic version by the show's main orchestrator, Don Walker, and it's Walker's version that's the basis for most stand-alone performances of the suite.) The movie soundtrack incorporates all the cuts and changes that were made for the movie version. The Lincoln Center cast recording, from 1965, has nearly-complete versions of some numbers -- notably the bench scene, perhaps the most ambitious musical scene ever undertaken in musical theatre up to that point -- but had to drop or truncate other numbers to make room for them.

In the '80s, when studio cast recordings of old musicals were briefly popular, there were plans to do a complete Carousel, but it never happened. MCA did do a recording with Samuel Ramey as Billy, but due to some kind of rights issue they were not allowed to use the original orchestrations, and had new (and not very good, as I recall) ones specially made for the recording.

Since then, there have been two cast recordings based on Nicholas Hytner's 1993 London stage production. They have their good points, but the vocalism isn't always up to what the score needs. More importantly, they had to re-orchestrate for smaller orchestras, and that's a bigger problem for Carousel than most musicals: it was scored for one of the biggest orchestras in Broadway history. It used a 39-piece orchestra, including 22 strings. That's bigger than some orchestras that play Mozart, never mind Broadway. It can be done with a smaller string section (it's hard to tell, but it sounds like fewer strings in the clip above), but when you cut down the strings to the level of modern pit bands, the music's impact is reduced even more than for the average re-orchestrated show.

At least the 1994 recording based on Hytner's production (after it moved to New York), though with some re-scoring, uses a string section that's large enough to do some justice to the score -- though even with the longer running times of CD, it had to make some cuts to avoid spilling over onto two discs.

What Carousel needs is a recording of two discs, with a full orchestra. But though there were a bunch of recordings like these in the '90s, from John Yap's TER/Jay company (which recorded every note of dance music and transition music for many classic musicals, marketing them to schools and amateurs who wanted to learn all the music prior to performing it), Carousel never made it onto the list of recorded shows; I'm not sure why. The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization recently paid to make a two-disc complete recording of Allegro, but I honestly think Carousel needs it more.

Another big show that needs another recording is Follies, though that's a show that actually has had nearly all its music recorded in its original form; it's just that it's never had a really satisfying recording. There have been four recordings of Follies, and all of them have something wrong with them:

- The original cast recording has (of course) the best cast, but the record company refused to give the album two LPs. To get it onto one, nearly every song was truncated.

- The 1985 "Follies in Concert" recording has the usual problems of live recording at the time -- it's not a great-sounding album. More importantly, it's not a satisfying cast overall; hardly anybody is exactly right for his or her part. (Barbara Cook is a great singer; Sally was never really her kind of part -- it's not a part she would have done on the stage.) And even this version left out or changed some bits of the score.

- The 1987 London cast recording preserves the "revisal" that Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman created (on suggestions by the producer, Cameron Mackintosh) for this production, revisions that were eventually withdrawn because hardly anyone liked them. Though this was the only production of Follies that has ever been a commercial hit, so frankly I would think they'd be worth looking at more closely. Still, the recording preserves the worst ideas from the production: dropping a very important song ("The Road You Didn't Take") and adding mostly mediocre new songs from a Sondheim who had forgotten how to write a concise 32-bar song. (The new climactic number, "Make The Most of Your Music," is one of Sondheim's most overlong and repetitive songs.)

- The 1998 recording based on the New Jersey Papermill Playhouse production includes nearly the whole score plus some cut numbers, with the original orchestrations and a cast that at least had performed the thing on stage. While I'm glad to have it just for the completeness and archival value, it's a very unexciting recording -- maybe because Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, stepped in to conduct it. He's a great orchestrator but a dull conductor, and the whole thing is too low-energy to make much of an impact.

It's too bad the 2007 Encores! production of Follies didn't get a recording, but again, if no one wants to step in and pay for one, you can't blame record companies for not doing it; most show albums are money-losers. There's a production of Follies coming next year with Bernadette Peters as Sally, and that might get a recording if it does well -- but I fear that this might use a reduced orchestra too, and this (like Carousel) is a show that needs the original orchestrations more than most.

Finally, the post-Oklahoma! musical that is done least justice by its recording is probably The Golden Apple, John LaTouche and Jerome Moross's monumentally ambitious, weird, goofy and kind of brilliant Americanized take on The Odyssey. As one of the first true through-composed musicals -- a show that's sung almost from beginning to end but calls for musical-comedy, not opera, voices -- the single-disc cast album can't give more than a taste of the score, but because it wasn't a big hit, there's never been a full recording. Except that because there's no full recording, it's hard for people to discover it, and therefore hard for the show to get as many performances as it probably deserves.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Ann-Margret Unbalancing Act

TCM showed The Pleasure Seekers tonight (they've been getting access to more and more Fox films, presumably -- I don't get the channel -- as the Fox Movie Channel phases older films out). I've written a couple of times before about how this terrible film is the perfect cheesy, prematurely-dated example of all the problems old-school popular culture was facing in 1964. The visuals, the attitude to sexual freedom, and the music are all clearly the products of people who wanted to appeal to the Youth Market but had no idea what young people were like. The Bossa Nova version of "Blue Moon" at a dance for wealthy Jet Setters is still one of the definitive 1964 moments.

Pleasure Seekers was followed by another Viva Las Vegas showing, which I didn't watch (that's a movie that works better in excerpts, anyway). But two 1964 Ann-Margret movies in a row got me to thinking about her again. I always liked her, at all stages of her career, and never got why critics in the mid-'60s seemed to dislike her: in The Cincinnati Kid she's actually very good (granted that it's not a difficult part for her to play) and her bad movies aren't bad because of anything she does. But though she probably would have become a big movie star if musicals had been more in fashion, it occurred to me that there's something most of her early movies have in common: they're almost all unbalanced by her presence, tilted in her favor either more than the story warrants or more than the actual star wanted.

The early Ann-Margret movies, apart from Kitten With a Whip where she's sort of the star and Pocketful of Miracles where she wasn't well-known yet, all seem to beef up her role to some extent:

- State Fair increases her role's importance compared to the same part (as played by Vivian Blaine) in the previous movie version.

- Bye Bye Birdie, of course, is one of the era's most famous examples of a movie where the director threw more and more material at a part that was supposed to be supporting. It culminated in the legendary opening and closing scenes (shot after all the other production had wrapped), effectively turning it into her movie and her story, since the real arc of the film becomes how she goes from screechy teenager to sultry woman.

- Viva Las Vegas, same thing (same director as Birdie); there's a famous story that Colonel Parker insisted on the scrapping of some of the material that was planned for her, though this may not necessarily have been only because she was stealing the movie from Elvis -- apparently what really bugged Parker was that Sidney was going way over budget, and the whole point of the Parker/Presley strategy was to make movies very cheap, so that they could always make back their cost no matter how bad they were. In any case, the movie has a weird structure because her part sort of drops away to almost nothing after "My Rival," and yet she still dominates the movie because she's a much more natural movie performer than Elvis is.

- The Pleasure Seekers is another version of the Three Coins In the Fountain story, where the three girls are usually supposed to be about equal. Here, though the other two girls actually have marginally more substantial stories (I said marginally; they're all kind of terrible, and Carol Lynley is stuck with a scene that the film's producer would recycle in Valley of the Dolls), A-M gets four solo musical numbers -- written by the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn team, who had no idea how to write for her -- once again tipping the movie to her.

- The Cincinnati Kid isn't really tilted that much toward her; it's just that both the young female parts are a bit irrelevant (that was one of Sam Peckinpah's problems with the project, apparently) and A-M plays her part much better than Tuesday Weld plays hers, thereby making her the definite female lead when it was probably supposed to be Weld, or neither of them.

A lot of these examples have to do with directors and producers tossing extra material at Ann-Margret because either they were infatuated with her, or really thought she was great (with George Sidney it seemed to be a combination of both) or because they thought she was destined for stardom and wanted to get in on it. But the way these movies use her, they probably didn't help her become a star; they seemed to suggest that she was an outsize personality who was always trying to dominate any scene she was in, and couldn't do a normal co-starring role with another actor. I can barely think of an early A-M scene where she's not completely in control of the scene, whether the story calls for it or not.

All of this, as I said, just shows that she needed to be in musicals, where everybody is always trying to upstage everybody and the more you try, the more fun it is (sometimes). And of course starting in Carnal Knowledge she proved she could tone it down and re-invent herself as a character actress who could stand still and let someone else have the scene. But in her early years, at the height of hype -- hype which I think was well-deserved -- her movies are all written and shot in such a way as to make it clear that no one has a chance to be noticed when she's on screen.

Which, paradoxically, I think made it harder for her to establish herself as a star. After the Elvis experience, there was really no way for her to get male co-stars of any stature for a while (except Alain Delon in Once a Thief, and in an English-language movie he wasn't exactly a star), because there was no reason to believe a male co-star wouldn't get eaten for lunch. Which is why her few '60s movies as an attempted star mostly have male co-stars who are used to getting eaten alive by leading ladies. Like Tony Franciosa, Hollywood's man of choice when you needed a guy who understood that when he was onscreen with A-M or Raquel Welch, nobody would be looking at him. This may also explain why she was passed over for parts in the big musicals that dominated the '60s; she was considered for Mrs. Molloy in Hello, Dolly!, but even assuming Streisand would have accepted it, she would have been way too outsize a personality for that rather little part.

That's a bit too much writing about one starlet from the '60s, even one I think was more genuinely talented and interesting than we usually got to see in movies. (I've compared her, and still do, to Anna Karina: they had the looks, the distinctive personality, the obvious fascination they inspired in their directors, and even the ability to sing and dance -- but they didn't always put it all together in the same film.) I just find it intriguing that it doesn't necessarily help a potential star to have supporting parts inflated for her (or, perhaps worse, to inflate them simply by being on the screen); it just gets you a reputation as someone who isn't enough of a team player to be a star.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I tried to make a video like this myself a while back, but this one is much better and more complete -- as far as I can tell, it's all of Pinky's responses to the "Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?" question from "Animaniacs" and the spin-off series. I think they did the routine a couple of times on "Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain" and in the "Wakko's Wish" movie, so it's not one hundred percent complete, but it's all the responses from the commercial DVD sets.

They're not arranged in order, which makes it less clear, but there was an evolution in the kind of answers Pinky gave. Originally it was something that implied he was "pondering" a solution to the actual problem he and Brain were dealing with, but that his idea was something weird or potentially obscene. Midway through the spinoff, it changed to become a random thought on popular culture or some other issue that happened to be on Pinky's mind ("But 'Tuesday Weld' isn't a complete sentence").

There was also at least one "pondering" that was written in and redubbed at the last minute. A longtime fan (I think it was Ron "Keeper" O'Dell, the keeper of the most important "Animaniacs" online resource) suggested "I think so, Brain, but she'd never leave Mickey." It was apparently recorded, but the Warners legal department ordered it out because of the knotty compensation issues involved -- you're not supposed to use unsolicited ideas, even if they give you permission. So it was changed to "But then my name would be 'Thumby.'"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Created in the Studio

I just wanted to highlight this post about the matte shots in The Love Bug (supervised by Alan Maley, though the king of mattes, Peter Ellenshaw, came back to do some, including the famous shot of Dean Jones' nighttime search for Herbie). The Disney company's determination to do as much studio and as little location work as possible -- substituting the matte department, the Ub Iwerks sodium process, and other special effects gimmicks for location shooting -- was just an extreme version of a common tendency for old-school studio films in the '60s: as the '40s and '50s vogue for location shooting started to recede, older producers and directors were interested in controlling costs by staying in the studio.

Also, I think some producers may have felt that the visual appeal of location shooting had become diluted. Two of the biggest hit movies from 1964, Warners' My Fair Lady and Disney's Mary Poppins, both elected to tell turn-of-the-century English stories entirely on Hollywood studio sets, and while it's hard to know whether this saved a lot of money (especially on My Fair Lady, which was insanely expensive for a film with few locations and a relatively small cast), but it made the films look more distinctive and spectacular than the real London would have looked at that point.

In any case, I think The Love Bug has some of the best uses of matte paintings ever; like those TV shows today that use green screen to fake many locations, it uses mattes in places where you're barely aware of them. And yet the overall effect is to create a San Francisco that is an idealized, misty, magical version of the city -- a place where the crazy story seems plausible. Extensive location shooting (there was some, but not much) would have made the story seem much harder to accept.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Disney and the Copyright Police

That Donald Duck remix cartoon also reminded me of something I don't think I've mentioned before: despite its reputation as an extreme copyright hawk -- there's a reason "Disney lawyer" is a term all its own -- Disney probably cracks down less on YouTube postings of its classic material than almost any other company.

I won't link to examples for fear of jinxing it, but there are clips of Disney cartoons, or songs from Disney animated features, that were uploaded soon after YouTube got popular and are still there, years later. There are some that have gotten pulled, I'm sure; recent material quite rightly gets a harder time, and not all classic clips stay up forever -- though some of them may be due to account deletion (from other things that got pulled) rather than Disney complaints. It may be that they've done what other companies do and simply arranged to get YouTube to give them a piece of the ad revenue in exchange for keeping those clips up. I don't know the details, though I'm going to try and find out.

But if you compare it to Warner Brothers, it's a whole different thing: Warners is constantly cracking down on classic cartoon uploads, taking them down almost every time they appear. The few that are still there are exceptions, clips that WB hasn't noticed yet for some reason or another, or public domain cartoons. Disney either has a laissez-faire attitude about classics on YouTube, or just doesn't have a system in place for taking the stuff down.

Whether this is a conscious Disney policy or not, you'll be unsurprised to hear that I think it's a good policy. As I've complained many times, by taking its classic cartoons off YouTube, Warner Brothers cuts off its best hope of introducing young people to these films; they're constantly trying to figure out how to rebuild the Looney Tunes brand, but cracking down on uploads that get hundreds of thousands of views for these characters. Whereas kids who want to see Donald Duck can see him all over YouTube; there are some real Donald Duck cartoon uploads with millions of hits. That's got to be good for Disney's branding and marketing, even if it's not legal.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Spot the Donald Duck Cartoons

I know many others have linked to it already, but this mashup video, "Right Wing Radio Duck" -- where Donald's unemployment and economic insecurity make him receptive to the Glenn Beck show -- is today's viral video, and rightly. The creators deserve some kind of prize for finding a way to tell a complete, coherent story with almost nothing but actual Donald Duck cartoon clips and actual radio voice-overs.

It's been a while since I watched a lot of Donald cartoons, so I'm not sure, for the most part, which clips the clips come from (except for the obvious ones like "Der Fuehrer's Face," a few clips from "Window Cleaners," and the José Carioca bits). Maybe someone will put together a list of sources.

Update: As pointed out in comments, I originally confused José, who is not used in this cartoon, with Panchito Pistoles, who is. Maybe José can be saved for the sequel about Donald confronting the Brazilian menace and the secret Stalinist plot behind FDR's nefarious Good Neighbor Policy.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Most Over-Rhymed Song

I was listening the other day to a 1948 musical called Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, about ballet, with a score and vocal arrangements by one of my living heroes, Hugh Martin. The show doesn't represent his very best work, as I believe he's admitted; it's possible that his easygoing style wasn't quite a perfect fit for the director, Jerome Robbins, here making his debut as a director/choreographer of musicals. In any case, the promise of the idea -- Nancy Walker stars as an heiress who decides to finance a ballet company -- doesn't really come through in the songs, which are all pleasant but could mostly fit into any situation.

Still, I never heard a Martin song yet that wasn't at least fun to listen to, especially when he's doing the vocal arrangements. One song from the show, "Gotta Dance," would have been perfect for Gene Kelly in an MGM musical; sung by Harold Lang (sort of the guy Broadway got for Gene Kelly parts after Kelly left), it was still impressive enough that Stephen Sondheim put it on a list of songs he wished he'd written.

And one song, "Shauny O'Shay," is at least slightly notable as an example of... maybe I shouldn't have said over-rhyming, since that's a pejorative term and I don't know if the rhyming kills the song. But it's certainly one of the most ambitiously packed rhyme schemes I've ever heard, with tons of internal rhymes, quadruple rhymes, and trick rhymes ("limits/dim, it's"). It may show Martin, writing a score alone for the first time -- he'd previously split songwriting duties with fellow composer-lyricist Ralph Blane -- trying too hard to show off, since I don't know that all the rhyming fits the laid-back mood of the song. But it's certainly worth hearing for fans of tight rhyming.

Incidentally, Steven Suskin's The Sound of Broadway Music says that this show was one of the first that involved the work of Robert Ginzler (Bye Bye Birdie), who became the busy Don Walker's primary "ghost" orchestrator for the next ten years. The book doesn't say which numbers Ginzler orchestrated, but some parts of this number sound like they could have been his work.

Another thing about "Shauny O'Shay" is that it's an example of the tricky relationship between pop music and musical theatre. According to Billboard, the actual character of Shauny O'Shay was eliminated from the show during tryouts, so the song went with him. But the creative team was informed that "Shauny O'Shay" was considered the only song in the score that had potential to get on the pop charts (it didn't, but nothing did from this show). So "it was finally put back to keep the disc jockeys and record companies happy, but didn't prove the potential hit it seemed to be at first." This was pretty common back in the days when pop hits came from Broadway shows, and when a pop hit was a huge plus for a musical's box-office; the producers had to think of the "exploitation" possibilities as well as the dramatic ones.

The article also mentioned how "If I Were a Bell" had been cut from the then-recent Guys and Dolls for a while, and that it was put back in after two weeks in part because it had already been recorded several times in anticipation of the opening. Though that song, at least, was not out of place in the show (and Frank Loesser claimed in the article that he never intended to leave it out entirely, just to revise it).

Here also is the "Gotta Dance" song -- much more normally rhymed -- that I mentioned before. You can see what I mean about how it would have been a perfect Gene Kelly song.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It Shoulda Been on a Golden Collection

I'm not going to complain any more than I already have about the state of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies on home video. I just wish, looking back, that the final Golden Collection had included more "mainstream" cartoons. The idea of having a Bosko/Buddy disc was that there would never be another chance to get them out on DVD, and that seemed like a reasonable thing -- except it turns out there may never be another chance to get many of the great Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck/pre-1954 Foghorn Leghorns either.

Here's a decent-looking (though slightly sped-up) print of a cartoon I would have loved to see on a DVD collection: "The Unruly Hare," the first of only two Bugs Bunny cartoons Frank Tashlin directed. It's not the Bugs cartoon I would most like to have in a properly restored print, though; that's "Racketeer Rabbit," which I've already written about.

One thing about "The Unruly Hare" that I always like to point out is that it reflects how much less violent WB cartoons were in the early-to-mid-'40s than they later became. There's some violence and shooting, but nowhere near the level of Bugs/Elmer cartoons from the '50s. And the final part of the cartoon is devoted to a dynamite gag where the dynamite doesn't blow anybody up. If you look at cartoons from this period you'll often see that: dynamite that doesn't blow people up, characters walking off a cliff and then running back to safety without falling. The level of cartoon violence got amped up exponentially in the late '40s, maybe because of the Tom and Jerry influence.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Claude Chabrol Obituaries

I don't have much time to discuss the death of Claude Chabrol, but here are two of the longer obituaries that have appeared so far:

- The Guardian, by Ronald Bergan

- The Daily Telegraph

I don't have sound at the moment on my computer, so I'm watching clips of Chabrol films silent -- and in silence, it's even clearer that his debt to Hitchcock wasn't just thematic; in terms of compositions (often very tight), camera moves, and combinations of both (keeping the camera close on someone while he's walking), the Hitchcock influence is genuine, but Chabrol made the style very much his own.

This is over-generalizing, but there were arguably two approaches available to New Wave directors drunk on genre films and wanting to do something different from the well-made establishment cinema. One was to try and make a different kind of film every time, another was to try a narrower focus. Chabrol and Demy always struck me as two directors who -- while they certainly didn't make the same movie every time -- seemed to try to "brand" themselves by specializing in a certain kind of film with a certain kind of look. And of the directors of his generation, Chabrol was the most successful in branding himself while also giving himself (like Hitchcock) the freedom to make different types of movies and stories within the overall style he'd adopted.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Fixing the "Superman" Musical

One of the first obscure musicals I wrote about here was It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman, so I've been interested to see what's been happening with its attempted "Revisal" by the Dallas Theater Center. A version of the show with a new book by playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa opened there a few months ago; it was an expensive production clearly done with an eye on a Broadway transfer, but not much seems to have come of it yet. Of course things might be different if the Spider-Man musical turns out to do better than people expect.

This is a description of the revised production, and Aguirre-Sacasa talked to Comic Book Resources about the approach and the songs that were dropped and added. (The added songs mostly come from a pool of cut songs that Strouse and Adams recorded as demos, and which can be found as an appendix to the CD release of the original cast album.) DC wouldn't allow them to include the Superman characters that the musical left out -- so Max Mencken the columnist was changed to Lex Luthor, but then changed back to a version of Max who acts very much like Lex Luthor. But the setting was changed to the period when Superman comics began; the plot was changed; the tone made less campy; and so on.

Not having seen the revisal, I'm not going to try and pass judgment on whether it worked or not. I will say that revisions of failed musicals often seem to start from a one-size-fits-all attitude toward what makes a musical fail. The idea is always that the songs are great and the original production was fine but was dragged down by the book. (The book always gets blamed for everything.) In the case of Superman that's probably not true at all. The book, written by David Newman and Robert Benton at a time when they had already written their then-unproduced script for Bonnie and Clyde, is funny and smart; someone I know who saw it on Broadway described it as one of the funniest books ever written. It has its problems now, mostly because its approach -- viewing comic books ironically -- is no longer in fashion. But the show had bigger problems than the scriptwriting per se, though some of its larger problems are inseparable from script problems. Director Hal Prince clearly was not engaged by the material (he admitted as much in his memoirs), and Jack Cassidy threw off the proportions of the show by being too big a name for what should have been a small part.

My problem with "revisals" generally is that it's very hard to fix a show after the fact. It's incredibly tempting, given the benefit of hindsight and more time than the creators had during the hectic tryouts, but nothing seems to help all that much. Even Candide, which has just been announced for its millionth revised version, has (in my opinion) never arrived at a version as good as the original Lillian Hellman book -- that has its problems, but it's one with the score in a way that none of the subsequent versions are. It's the difference, I suppose, between a book that's created in conjunction with the score and a book that's created around it.

But at least Candide has a legitimately great score that you can't help wanting to save. In Superman, while there are some fantastic songs from Strouse and Adams in their prime -- just after they had created perhaps the greatest Broadway score of the '60s, for Golden Boy -- a lot of the weakest moments come from the score, not Benton and Newman's book. In particular the team could never figure out how to characterize Superman in song. I don't blame them: it's almost impossible to write songs for a character who is simultaneously a hero and a parody of one, and who has no sense of irony about himself. The closest character is, strangely enough, Candide -- and Bernstein and his lyricists solved the Candide problem by giving him songs at mostly un-ironic moments. But Superman's songs aren't goofy enough to be funny and they're not serious enough to work un-ironically, so the score is a big reason why there's a void at the center of the show. I actually like his big eleven o'clock number, "Pow! Bam! Zonk!" (written before the Batman TV show, I might add) -- but it's just not strong enough to make him the star of his own show.

One solution someone suggested to me years ago was to take Lois's ballad "What I've Always Wanted," about how she's longed for domesticity and settling down, and give it to Clark Kent and/or Superman. It would fit him quite well with only a few lyric changes, give him a more substantial musical moment, and make Lois a less sappy character as well. But while the revisal cut "What I've Always Wanted" it didn't hand it over to anyone else. So it will probably remain a show where the best song goes not to Clark or Lois or even the villain, but a gossip columnist's secretary trying to seduce Clark Kent.

Oh, well. I should add again that the original orchestrations of Superman, by Eddie Sauter, are some of my favorites ever. Sauter wasn't the first orchestrator to do without violins (this was actually a minor fad at the time, with shows as diverse as Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum and 110 in the Shade letting violas do the main string work instead, and Don Walker even eliminating violas and using only cellos in a couple of shows), but he created a sound for this show that was like none other, a combination of brassy, romantic and otherworldly; in other words, perfect for Superman. His Entr'acte is one of the best of all time, so good that it was recorded for the cast album (Entr'actes aren't usually recorded because they tend to be very similar to the overtures):

Update: From comments, reader "MSPote" has seen the revised version and has a fuller description of it:

Hi -- Interesting post. I did get to see the revisal/revival, and it was fantastic. It "worked" beautifully. I wasn't privy to any behind-the-scenes information -- just a regular theater-goer -- but it didn't seem to me that "everything was blamed on the [orginal] book." As you mentioned, some songs that originally had been cut were added; and not every song that made the cut back in 1966 was left, or even left untouched. "Doing Good" was abbreviated and put in Pa Kent's mouth in a brief Smallville prologue. "You've Got Possibilities" was given to the character of the gossip columnist, who is now herself the columnist, not a columnist's reporter. And it now helps set up a fabulous twist near the end of Act II. "Pow! Zam! Bonk!" is still there, largely untouched so far as I could tell. "We Don't Matter" is now a duet between Sharpe (the gossip columnist, who is "more cynical than Lois," says Clark) and Clark Kent (who takes what used to be Lois' lyrics, sticking up for humanity and its potential). The Entre'Acte was still there (no overture though), although Lois' sappy ballad has been cut from it (since it no longer appears in the show).

If you ever get the chance to see this new version in regional theater, which I think is where it will be heading (if anywhere -- DC, sadly and I think unnecessarily, doesn't seem too supportive of future productions) I urge you to do so. I think you will find that, other revisals aside, this one is a great one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Insufficiently Silly Love Songs

One post I've gotten some (polite) adverse feedback on is my "Why Sondheim can't write a love song" post, where I argued that Stephen Sondheim's ballads tend to suffer from vague, non-specific, generalized lyrics that could be about anything. As the comments noted, I was the one who was over-generalizing, and that's a fair point to make. (It's also a fair point to make that I over-indulged in jokey contrarianism for its own sake, blurring the line between serious points and over-the-top ones.)

Still, I can't say I've really changed my mind on the subject since reading Sondheim's first volume of collected lyrics, "Finishing the Hat." (It covers most of his produced shows from 1954-1981, with a second volume -- featuring the later shows and hopefully an appendix of other lyrics -- due out later.) I don't want to say anything about the book just yet, so this post won't quote anything from the book or Sondheim's annotations. But the lyrics are almost all familiar quantities, so I have to say that it still strikes me that he shuts down and goes bland whenever a ballad is called for.

There are lots of examples that jump out at me but the one that really struck me this time around was the climax of Anyone Can Whistle, a ballad called "With So Little To Be Sure Of," the most sincere moment in a surreal show and therefore the key moment in the evening. And while I've never cared much for the song (or the show), the incredible vagueness of the lyric stands out for me; there's really not an actual concrete image in the whole thing:

With so little to be sure of,
If there's anything at all,
If there's anything at all,
I'm sure of here and now and us together.
All I'll ever be I owe you,
If there's anything to be.
Being sure enough of you
Makes me sure enough of me.
Thanks for everything we did,
Everything that's past.
Everything that's over too fast,
None of it is wasted,
All of it will last,
Everything that's here and now and us together...

And so on. Now a moment like this arguably calls for vagueness because the characters aren't supposed to be three-dimensional; the show was a fable and there were very few "real" things in the show that could be incorporated into the lyric. But it's not just in that show; it happens in ballads all through the book, as early as West Side Story and as late as Merrily We Roll Along. But also, that's the kind of moment when other lyricists compensate for thin characters by finding other images and concrete ideas that can flesh out a typical subject; half the art of traditional lyric writing was finding some new image to express an old idea. It's what made Yip Harburg portray love as literally a force of nature in "Right as the Rain" or Sondheim's bete noire Larry Hart compare loneliness to being adrift on the ocean ("guided by just a lonely heart"), or even a less distinctive ballad like "Lost in Loveliness" calls forth a number of powerful images from Leo Robin, all of them describing what the singer does, not just what he feels (looking, going mad, reaching for a star, closing your eyes, walking away, dreaming, praying). Possibly because of his rule that nothing outside the show is relevant to a song, Sondheim often spends important numbers putting nothing but the familiar (abstract feelings, mostly) into a lyric. Which is how you get a lovely Richard Rodgers tune slightly weighed down by this fairly typical Sondheim idea (though at least it's got some hugging and holding in there to keep it from floating away into total abstraction):

Take the moment,
Let it happen,
Hug the moment,
Make it last.
Hold the feeling
For the moment
Or the moment
Will have passed.

He's hardly the only great lyricist who does this, of course. Still, I think one reason "Send In the Clowns" became a hit is that even though many listeners weren't sure what the title meant, it still conjures up something outside of the song -- a physical image, and even something happening (the clowns are already here). "Not a Day Goes By," which people keep trying to make into a hit ballad (they can't, because it's a rather poor song), is just a laundry list of feelings and abstract emotions in both its "happy" and "angry" versions -- though, typically, the angry version is a bit more concrete -- and doesn't have that kind of physical hook that can set it apart. Whereas "Losing My Mind," a song with some currency outside of the show, has all kinds of actual things, objects, actions, for the singer and the audience to latch onto and feel that there's a world being conjured up by the song.

While I'm at it, I should say a couple of things about Sondheim's criticisms of older lyricists -- and here, again, I'm going to stick to things he's said in the past, rather than direct quotations from the book. The things he's said about Larry Hart have always been fair, up to a point. That is, when he points to an example of mis-stress or awkward verbiage in Hart's lyrics, he's usually right, though he doesn't always distinguish between minor mis-steps and ones that actually hurt the song. (As an example of the latter: "Love Never Went to College," the song I quoted in my other post, is almost crippled by the fact that Hart sets Rodgers' tune with a strong accent on the first syllable of "never," making that syllable more strongly accented than "love," which is the actual subject of the song. The fact that this song never became popular probably has something to do with the fact that it's so terribly awkward to sing due to Hart's foul-up.)

My problem with Sondheim's comments on Hart are threefold. One I just mentioned, that he always tends to give the impression that all technical lapses are equally bad. This principle isn't a problem for his own lyrics -- at least not a big problem; it can lead to bloodlessness -- but isn't great for encouraging younger lyricists to take the kind of wild risks (with language, imagery, sound and sense) that can produce distinctive talents. I wouldn't really want someone conducting a songwriting workshop on that principle, but it's my impression that a lot of people do (which obviously is not Sondheim's fault; he's more a symptom than a cause). So you get the current situation where pop lyricists, with all their flaws of technique, are willing to put more weird and wild ideas into their songs than most theatre lyricists. And it doesn't have to be that way.

Another is that his comments, repeated often over the years, have helped create a portrait of Hart as an irredeemably sloppy technician. Now, again, that's not really Sondheim's fault; he's a contributing factor, but the main problem is that the Rodgers and Hart shows that get revived most often -- particularly Pal Joey and Babes in Arms -- include some of his worst work along with some of the best. By the late '30s and early '40s, for various possible reasons (drinking, growing apart from Rodgers, increasing involvement with book-writing and other tasks), Hart's work had become very uneven, and could go from technically brilliant to very sloppy in the same show or even two refrains of the same song. There are some shows from that period where Hart's work is great almost all night, but they're often flops like Higher and Higher (a much better score, song for song, than Pal Joey). And if you look at Rodgers and Hart's shows from the '20s, up to and through their stint in Hollywood in the early '30s, Hart's work is much more consistently sharp; even though he was rhyming even more heavily then, he usually managed to do it while keeping the lyrics clear and singable. (Look at "Manhattan," an early Rodgers/Hart song where the lyric maintains is colloquial style amidst a barrage of rhymes and jokes.) Basically a close look at Rodgers and Hart's work would show that Hart got sloppier as he got closer to death -- which doesn't let him off the hook for sloppiness, but is a bit different from saying that he was always sloppy. Though I may be biased because I think Rodgers and Hart's best work was in their '20s shows and movies like Love Me Tonight; by the time they split up, it was probably time for both of them to move on and find new partners (Rodgers did, of course; Hart died before he could find someone else to work with).

And the final thing is it just encourages a sort of culture of nit-picking which has become the bane of all pop-culture discussion, but has also infected the way Broadway buffs discuss lyrics: I'm always hearing "worst lyrics" discussions where most of the examples are gotcha-type examples of words that aren't real words, or images that couldn't exist in real life. (This isn't a Hart example, but seriously, can we stop making fun of the lark learning to pray? Have you seen the show? That's exactly the image that this character would come up with.) Which again helps perpetuate the idea that the best lyrics are sensible, technically perfect and realistic ones, an aesthetic that doesn't leave much room for a Hart or a Bob Merrill or many other great lyrics that don't follow every rule of lyrical technique. Again, some criticisms of technique -- bad stress, bad rhymes, unclear sense -- are fair. When it turns into critiquing lyrics for its own sake, irrespective of whether they work or not, it becomes limiting.