Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"What's the Use?"

I should find a way to segue into this, but I can't, so I'll just say: I'm posting this song because I really, really like it and it's one of my favorite songs ever. It's from the famous cult flop Candide (1956), with music by Leonard Bernstein and a script by Lillian Hellman; one of the most famous of all cult flop musicals, it's been revived many times with many different scripts (none of which are as good as Hellman's original script, uneven though it is) and with many added songs (none of which are as good as the originals).

This song, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, is sung in a casino in Venice, and in keeping with the politically-charged tone of the show (in some scenes it's like a pastiche of the old Popular Front style), appears to have some kind of message about the futility of capitalism. But what it mainly is is a great comedy song with an irresistible waltz tune that builds to a climax that's both enthralling and hilarious, while making its point in a non-preachy way.

The lead singer in the number is the Russian opera singer Irra Petina, who plays the character of the Old Lady. Like a number of people in the original cast of Candide, she was a full-fledged opera singer who'd sung at the Metropolitan opera. Broadway in the '40s and '50s had access to quite a number of singers who were operatically trained, but weren't "crossover" singers in any sense. People like Petina, Robert Rounseville (Candide), Carol Brice, John Reardon and many others didn't change their vocal style for Broadway, but neither did they sing Broadway songs in an overly-operatic way, nor did they muffle the words; they were just the people you hired for a Broadway show when you needed operatic singing voices, and Broadway shows frequently did in those days. But actually, one of the funniest things in the number is that in the middle of all these operatic voices, the guy playing the police chief has almost no voice at all. I'm assuming that was intentional.

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