Thursday, April 21, 2005

Barer of Good News

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, the lyricist Marshall Barer described himself as "The irrepressible, wafer-thin, rapier-keen, Anglo-sexual, psycho-Semitic, almost unbearably gifted Marshall Barer." When he died five years later, every obituary used that description somewhere in there. No one could describe Barer better than Barer could.

Barer is an interesting figure in the world of songwriting. He was, as he immodestly admitted, exceptionally gifted, one of the most talented song lyricists of his generation. His contemporaries all thought so; Stephen Sondheim was a fan and Fred Ebb said that "Marshall Barer is the lyricist I would hope to be someday." But though he was involved with one enduringly popular show -- Once Upon a Mattress, the royalties from which allowed him to live comfortably -- he never had the big career that his talent might have justified.

First I'll talk about his talent, then about his career more generally. Barer was part of a generation of songwriters who came of age when the Broadway musical was at the height of its popularity, and started breaking into musical theatre at a time when many of the "classic" composers and writers were going into semi-retirement (Berlin and Porter, to name two, didn't do much after the mid-'50s). The chief caracteristic of these new musical theatre writers is that for them, musical theatre had a history: unlike the previous generation of musical-theatre writers, who just wrote in the prevailing style of the time and then did their own twist on it, the '50s generation broke into musical theatre at a time when popular music was starting to change, and when writing in a classic musical-theatre style was already starting to seem like a conscious stylistic choice. The '50s was a time when the old works of musical theatre were being revived, when Ella Fitzgerald and others were dusting off the older songs of Rodgers, Kern, Porter and others, when Ben Bagley was starting to bring unknown and unpublished songs to the public's attention. Musical theatre was no longer a "now" kind of thing, something based purely on current trends and the demands of the current Broadway season; it had a history, and belonged to the ages. And the new writers, like Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Charles Strouse, and Jerry Herman, were all very different but they were all much more self-aware than the previous generation, very consciously influenced by the Old Masters.

Barer, who was born in 1923 and pursued a career in design before going into songwriting, was a little older than the other members of this vaguely-defined generation, but he clearly belonged to that group of songwriters who were aware of, and influenced by, the fact that musical theatre now had a history and range of styles to choose from. Barer's biggest influence was Larry Hart. Rodgers and Hart were the songwriters who benefited most from the new '50s interest in musical theatre and songwriting history; recording and cabaret artists were taking up the Rodgers and Hart catalogue, essays were being written on why Rodgers' songs with Hart were cooler than the ones he'd written with Hammerstein, and Hart was being rediscovered for his unique voice and style, for lyrics that sounded nothing like any lyrics that were being written in the '50s. Marshall Barer basically seems to have made it his mission to revive the Hart style, to be a new Larry Hart for the new generation. He even mentioned Hart by name in a song called "Beyond Compare":

Who could compose
Your valentine?
Not Billy Rose,
Nor Gertrude Stein.
Only a "Hart" like Larry might
Tell you what burns in mine tonight.

Barer's lyrics abound with the Hart trademarks. Over-rhyming, for one. Hart was famous as the man who "can rhyme anything -- and does," and Barer was just as obsessive about packing his lyrics with trick rhymes, multiple rhymes, and internal rhymes. Like all rhymeaholics, he would even place rhymes in spots where almost no one would notice them. There's a song in Once Upon a Mattress called "Normandy" that features a new rhyme approximately every two or three syllables.

Barer also came closer than any other lyricist to capturing the odd tone of Hart's work, that strange mixture of humor and melancholy, of fanciful allusions mixed with down-to-earth realism and concrete images. And because Once Upon a Mattress had music by Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary, writing in a style very much like her father's early style, much of the score sounds like Rodgers and Hart had gotten back together again. It's a tribute to Rodgers and Barer that they don't suffer (much) in the comparison. One of the first songs in Mattress, "In a Little While," is a Rodgers & Hart pastiche ballad that sums up most of the Barer style: tricky wordplay, internal rhymes, and a happy subject mixed with a sad tone (it's all about stuff that might happen, not good things that have happened).

In a little while, just a little while,
You and I will be one, two, three, for
In a little while I will see your smile
On the face of my son. To be for-
Ever hand in glove
Is the way I have it planned,
But I'll only stay in love
If the glove contains your hand.
In a velvet gown you'll be coming down the aisle,
And it's bound to seem as though the waiting's only been a little
In a little while.

Another Barer lyric, for a song called "On Such a Night as This" to the music of Hugh Martin (written for an unproduced musical called A Little Night Music -- more about this later), showcases his gift for putting funny allusions and cultural references in a love song; again, note the many internal rhymes:

On such a night as this
Did Lancelot declare
He'd gladly swim the seven seas
To please his lady fair.
On such a night did Wagner write "The Evening Star,"
'Neath such a moon stood Lorna Doone and Lochinvar.
On such a night as this
Did Robert Taylor sigh
As Garbo gave a little cough
And wandered off to die.
Lately I find I'm disinclined to reminisce,
Except, perhaps, on such a night as this.

A Little Night Music was no relation to the Sondheim musical; it was written in the early '60s, and it was one of many, many Barer projects that never made it. In this case, the problem was that it was written for Jeanette MacDonald, and her death put an end to the project. Many of the songs have become cabaret favorites, including Barer's tribute to his beloved Rodgers and Hart and to MacDonald, "Wasn't it Romantic?" -- a gloomy song about recalling lost love that is written as a countermelody to Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic?"

Though the world has grown cold, we can banish the chill,
We can order the present to vanish at will,
We can darken the room,
We can start the machine,
And from here in the gloom
As we gaze at the screen,
We can step into yesterday still.


Oh, wasn't it romantic,
All storybook and song,
You, fragile as a snowflake,
I, resolute and strong?
How lovely the glow
That I recall,
How lovely to know
That love was all.
White willows in the moonlight,
Bright silver in the stream,
Oh, did it really happen,
Or was it just a dream?
No matter, I still await
The moment when
I will know romance again.

Barer collaborated with many composers on unproduced or failed projects. He collaborated with Duke Ellington on a show called Pousse-Caffe that went through several drafts and lasted three performances, meaning it had more drafts than performances. He wrote English lyrics for La Belle, a failed Broadway-ization of Offenbach's La Belle Helene. He wrote songs with Burton Lane, Michel Legrand, Vernon Duke and Hoagy Carmichael, most of which were never heard. As Barer said, "The hills are alive with the sound of unpublished music, mostly from unproduced musicals."

If his best-known show was Mattress, his best-known song was the theme from "Mighty Mouse," aka "Here I Come to Save the Day." Barer didn't particularly care for the lyric: "I wrote it in the back of a taxi cab. But it's great when I tell people about it, and they respond with a gasp, 'You wrote the "Mighty Mouse" theme song!?'"

After repeated Broadway failures, Barer moved to California in the early '70s, where he opened an art gallery; after cabaret artists (including the incredibly annoying-sounding but undoubtedly knowledgeable Michael Feinstein) started taking up his songs, Barer got more involved in songwriting and in peforming his own material, but he never had another show produced again.

Part of Barer's problem may have been his eccentric personality; he was described as "the world's best lyricist and the world's worst house guest," and there's a story that he once urinated in the office of a producer he didn't like. Like Oscar Hammerstein, Barer usually insisted on writing the lyrics first instead of fitting his words to a tune, but according to Mary Rodgers, he not only presented her with the lyrics, but with all kinds of rhythm and accent marks showing exactly where the musical emphasis should go on every syllable.

Ultimately, Barer may just have been too old-fashioned a lyricist for Broadway. Like Hart, he wasn't really a songwriter who wrote for character or theatrical situation; instead he wrote about things that interested him, in his own voice, not the voice of the character. That's fine for cabaret material, but not so fine for the modern Broadway musical, and that's part of the reason why a lot of Barer's show songs work better as stand-alone cabaret songs.

Ben Bagley released a recording some years ago on his own Painted Smiles label devoted to Barer's songs; I don't know if it's still available anywhere.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for your wonderful essay about Marshall Barer. It's perfect.