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).


Pokey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pokey said...

You know, Jaime, I heard Hugh Martin on XM Satellite ON BROADWAY just a few weeks ago! They played all of those original "Meet Me In St.Louis" songs-obviously, not the title song as it was written too long ago for Hugh to have written it!!

A Happy Thanksgiving

Steve C.

Michael Sporn said...

I gott to meet him briefly in an empty theater that was preparing for the Broadway musical version of "Meet Me In St. Louis." I had done the animated prologue for the show which played over the overture. It was to be projected for the first time, and I had yet to meet the projectionist. However, I did see Mr. Martin in the eempty audience and was given a brief introduction. I talked with him for a few minutes but had to get to work.

A memory that stays vivid. I can remember his face vividly these many years later.

Anonymous said...

I love to find obscure songs/recordings from the golden ages of movie musicals and Broadway musicals. I liked the Broadway-ghost version better, despite my liking MGM big orchestra arrangements. The Broadway version has lots more zest and sparkle. As you'd expect with Hugh Martin, the choral parts work very effectively with the solo vocal.

Andrew S.

Jim said...

Here's a little novelty that you may enjoy: Ann Miller performing Too Darn Hot in a short bit of the 3D version of Kiss Me Kate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avhedsAYL6E