Friday, December 21, 2007

A Song I Like

I keep thinking I should write an "Obscure Musicals" post on the 1957 show Jamaica, which was a hit, and produced one of my favorite cast albums of all time, even though the show itself is basically unrevivable. But I concluded that I'd already written enough about it in this post on Harold Arlen's Broadway musicals. Short version is, Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote the show for Harry Belafonte; he wasn't available but Lena Horne was, so the show was completely re-tooled to focus on the hero's girlfriend. The final product that reached Broadway was a complete mess with a book that made no sense (due to the constant rewriting), but succeeded anyway because of Horne, Ricardo Montalban, the songs, and Jack Cole's choreography.

It was also apparently a pioneer in the practice of using microphones in theatres. The orchestra pit included several saxophones, and Horne, who never had a particularly big voice, couldn't be heard over the multiple saxes. So she was given a body mike to allow her to be heard without reducing the orchestration. (It wasn't the first body mike, though: Mary Martin used a mike in Peter Pan so she could be heard clearly when she was flying around the stage. It was, most likely, the first time amplification was used to allow the singer to be heard over the orchestra while standing still.)

Anyway, the best song in Jamaica is "I Don't Think I'll End It All Today," one of my favorite songs ever: Arlen's insanely catchy tune combined with Yip Harburg's just-plain-insane lyric -- a grotesque catalogue of violent death that nonetheless carries an upbeat and optimistic message -- makes for the most unique "charm song" ever written. And it's a reminder of the biggest reason why Harburg is my favorite lyricist: his insistent on using specific, tangible images instead of vague ones. Not only is he specific about methods of death that the singers won't use, but he's specific about the reasons why life is worth living. It's a lyric with lots and lots of nouns and verbs, few adjectives.

Here it is, from the original Broadway cast led by Horne and Montalban and conducted by Lehman Engel:

No comments: