Monday, September 06, 2004

Ten Songwriters -- Ten Songs

Here's an expanded version of an exercise I once came up with on a musical theatre newsgroup: If you were given the names of ten musical-theatre songwriters and/or teams, what songs would you choose to introduce a newcomer (someone who knew nothing whatsoever about musicals) to the style of that songwriter?

To explain further, what I'm talking about is not "the best" song, but a song that best sums up what this particular songwriter's work is all about, in terms of style, emotions, choice of subject and approach to that subject? In other words, if a visiting Martian asked "What is this Rodgers and Hammerstein entity all about?" what song would you choose to explain it? This is actually something that comes up occasionally, not necessarily with visiting Martians (I'm sure that they're already advanced enough to know all about the best of Irving Berlin), but with people who want to be introduced to musical theatre beyond The Sound of Music or, God forbid, A Chorus Line. And one of the best ways to do an introduction is to play songs by some of the greats, songs that they might not have heard before, but that a) They will probably like, and b) Will give them an idea of what that particular songwriter is all about.

Anyway, here are ten songs I would use to introduce people to various songwriters and/or teams. You'll notice that there's a bias here towards composer-lyricists or longtime teams; I couldn't come up with something for, say, Jerome Kern because he worked as part of so many different teams.

RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN: "All Kinds of People" from their 1955 failure Pipe Dream. Even a visiting Martian has probably heard OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL and THE SOUND OF MUSIC and the other R&H hits, so instead I'll choose something from their biggest failure. This short song is quintessential R&H: An optimistic message, sparsely rhymed lyrics, a cheeky melody for the verse followed by a soaring refrain that makes you believe in the lyric's optimistic, can't-we-all-just-get-along sentiments. The lyrics are, for better or for worse, representative of Hammerstein's calculated simplicity and optimism:

It takes all kinds of people to make up a world,
All kinds of people and things.
They crawl on the earth, they swim in the sea,
And they fly through the sky on wings.
All kinds of people and things,
And, brother, I'll tell you my hunch:
Whether you like them or whether you don't,
You're stuck with the whole damn bunch.

RODGERS & HART: "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Pal Joey. I gotta go with the obvious here; it has it all: romantic but tricky tune combined with bittersweet, romantic-cynical, heavily rhymed lyrics. I also know from experience that it really does make a perfect introduction, not just to Rodgers and Hart, but to musicals in general, for newbies who grew up thinking that musicals were all sweet and innocent. Another possibility would be "It Never Entered My Mind," which is arguably their greatest song and contains a line that, for some reason, listeners of my generation seem to find particularly risque:

Once you told me I'd stay up Sunday
To read the Monday morning dirt
And find you're merging with some skirt.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: "Waiting For the Girls Upstairs" from FOLLIES. This five-minute number combines various Sondheim trademarks: Tunes built out of repeated melodic fragments, a long interlude that's almost a separate song in itself, an ambitious theatrical conception, themes galore, rhymes galore, and a Jonathan Tunick trumpet buzz right at the end. Also, since it's five minutes, it also introduces listeners to another important characteristic of Sondheim songs: extreme length.

IRVING BERLIN: He's the hardest because he re-invented himself so much. Maybe I'll go out on a limb and say "Falling out of Love Can Be Fun" from MISS LIBERTY:

Falling out of love can be fun,
Someone else can soon be the one,
Buy another name, he's the same as his brother,
Close your eyes and one is like the other,
Falling out of love can be fun.

It's got Berlin's wit (a major, but often overlooked, part of his talent), his ability to frame a familiar situation (getting over a breakup) in a fresh way, and his favored trick of ending with a twist on the title:

Love can give a lady a clout,
And she may be down but not out.
Get yourself a date, don't you wait for the count of ten,
Falling out of love can be falling in love again.

Also, the orchestration, by master orchestrator Don Walker, can serve as an introduction to certain principles of classic Broadway orchestration: keeping the accompaniment thin when the singer is singing (because there were, thankfully, no microphones in theatres back then), punctuating the lines with muted trumpet fanfares, a discreetly jazzy piano part to liven up the beginning of the second refrain, and so on.

GEORGE & IRA GERSHWIN: "Someone To Watch Over Me" from Oh, Kay! is still probably the best introduction to this team -- a tune with one foot in the jazz age and the other in the style of Jerome Kern, a lyric at once knowing and naive.

JERRY BOCK & SHELDON HARNICK: "Marie's Law" from FIORELLO! In its comic approach to a serious case of unrequited love...

Here's another law we women'll
Do our best to legislate:
It shall be completely criminal
For a man to break a date.
Each offender shall be rapidly
Thrown in jail where he belongs,
Thus we'll write our bill of wrongs. epitomizes the B&H way of taking a lighthearted look at something serious -- without ever trivializing the subject or the character; this is something they would do in many of their best songs, such as "If I Were a Rich Man" from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. ("Marie's Law" is also a tribute to the director of FIORELLO!, George Abbott, who made Bock and Harnick throw out a serious torch song originally intended for this spot, and write something expressing the character's problem through comedy, not sentimentality.)

COLE PORTER: "Just One of Those Things" from JUBILEE -- but only if the verse is included ("As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend...") to give the full picture of Porter's blend of disillusioned romanticism, name-dropping, imaginative variations on AABA format (Porter's final A sections are almost never literal repetitions), and internal rhyming. Another song that works as an introduction to Porter is "Cherry Pies Ought To Be You" from Out of This World; it's not even one of his best list songs, but its speed, verve, and rapid-fire rhyming always gets listeners laughing, even listeners who didn't particularly care for musicals. I remember playing it for a bunch of people, mostly music students with no particular interest in musical theatre except possibly Sondheim, who loved "Cherry Pies" and absolutely cracked up at these lines:

You look so enticing,
I'm starting to shake.
You are just the icing
To put on my cake.

I'm not really sure why that was such a big success with these listeners, but it's all in the delivery, and the way the words fit with the music, and the way the rhymes come so fast and so (seemingly) effortlessly. Anyway, it was a step in showing people an important point about musical theatre that is often lost among all the poperettas and self-pity-fests that people often think of as synonymous with musicals: the point is that musicals are fun, and more than that, they're funny. The great musical-theatre songwriters, up to and including Sondheim (but not so much since Sondheim) knew how to write songs that could actually get people to laugh.

LERNER & LOEWE: "How Can I Wait?" from PAINT YOUR WAGON. It's hard to come up
with something "representative" for a team which used a different pastiche style for every show, but this one will do: A tune that is recognizably in Loewe's Viennese-operetta style and yet is also appropriate for the time and setting of the show, and which absolutely soars in the orchestral interlude. The one problem is that, on the cast album, it's not all that well sung; Olga San Juan does her best, but the tune is obviously written out of her range, and so the song doesn't take off the way "On the Street Where You Live" (a similar song, but not quite as good) does. Somebody ought to make a new recording of this one; the worst thing about the movie was not that it had Clint Eastwood singing, but that it cut this song.

JERRY HERMAN: "That Was Yesterday" from MILK AND HONEY. This is probably Herman's best song, period; it shows off his Berlin-esque deceptive simplicity, as well as his love of building to a big, full-chorus, applause-baiting climax.

FRANK LOESSER: "Make a Miracle" from WHERE'S CHARLEY? This is the ultimate Loesser super-duet; Loesser was a specialist in duets where the singers' phrases overlap, and where the singers are at cross-purposes; the most famous is "Baby, It's Cold Outside," but this one is just as good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

family guy is awsome what the heck
were u thinking.By the way so r so rong!