Saturday, March 12, 2011

Until Then, We'll Have To Muddle Through Somehow

I couldn't say I'm surprised that Hugh Martin died; he was 96, after all, and the one time I was lucky enough to finally talk with him (late last year) he didn't sound well. He still remembered a lot and could talk for a long time under the right conditions; when I tried to cut the conversation short because I was worried about him, he said "it's because of the frog in my throat, isn't it?," got his second wind, and kept on answering my questions. He even answered some follow-up questions later in the day when I didn't have a couple of things I needed for a short article I was doing.

But I am sad that he's gone. As I've said many times, Martin was one of my favorite people in American popular music. I mean, quite apart from the fact that he was alive and still able to talk about that era in Broadway, Hollywood and pop; even if he hadn't been one of the last living representatives of that period, I'd still have considered him one of the greats.

He didn't achieve quite the level of success that his talent would have justified, partly because he so good at so many things that he didn't concentrate on just one (his career as a vocal arranger gave him less time for composing) and partly because he didn't always do his best work in the best circumstances. For Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, his first Broadway score as sole composer lyricist, he did some outstanding work, including "Little Boy Blues," a comic/sad song full of tricky harmonies and rhymes. But he also did some work that wasn't quite up to his best, and as he recalled in his liner notes for a cast album reissue, "I got a false sense of security and instead of working hard, I relaxed a little. As a result, there are songs that are, well, OK, but not up to the standard of a George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Nancy Walker musical. I wish I had tried harder."

Whereas some of his best songs were written for projects that had no real value other than his work: "An Occasional Man," which I've praised many times, was written for an awful movie where it received an awful staging.

And Athena has one of the best ballads in movie musicals of the '50s ("Love Can Change the Stars") stuck in one of those films that MGM made primarily to burn off people's contracts. The original songs for Meet Me In St. Louis are a rare case of Martin's best work meeting everyone else's best work -- also the stage version of Best Foot Forward, which really deserves a concert staging with the original Don Walker orchestrations.

And then there's the vocal arranging. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the first cast album where the vocal arrangements simply blew me away; sometimes the choral sections (which often involved substatial original work from Martin, in music and lyrics) were more fun than the refrains. Obviously he was influenced by Kay Thompson, and as he said, she got annoyed at him because "she thought I imitated her, which I did." But he had his own take on her style, and his arrangements at MGM sometimes sounded more effective than hers in the mouths of studio choristers and fictional characters. And he was the first person to bring that sound to the Broadway theatre.

Before Martin, vocal arrangement on Broadway was almost nonexistent, except in operetta where there might be more classical-influenced arrangements going on. People would sing the refrain, then again, then again. Richard Rodgers, looking for a "girl group" sound for "Sing For Your Supper" in The Boys From Syracuse, let Martin arrange it. He had the singers do the refrain "straight" the first time, then embellish it with bits that sounded (but weren't) improvised, then really embellish it the third time around. And he had to do this, mind you, not for jazz singers but for Broadway singer/actors who didn't have experience with this kind of arranging, meaning it had to be simple enough for the performers to learn quickly. What he came up with launched his career on Broadway (Rodgers gave him more vocal work and eventually hired him and Ralph Blane to write the score for Best Foot Forward) and changed the sound of Broadway; it was such a successful arrangement that it was used more or less unchanged in every version of the show from then on -- the script was rewritten, the orchestrations changed (though this recording, from 1953 uses the originals), but the Martin version of refrains 2 and 3 was usually kept.