Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Most Over-Rhymed Song

I was listening the other day to a 1948 musical called Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, about ballet, with a score and vocal arrangements by one of my living heroes, Hugh Martin. The show doesn't represent his very best work, as I believe he's admitted; it's possible that his easygoing style wasn't quite a perfect fit for the director, Jerome Robbins, here making his debut as a director/choreographer of musicals. In any case, the promise of the idea -- Nancy Walker stars as an heiress who decides to finance a ballet company -- doesn't really come through in the songs, which are all pleasant but could mostly fit into any situation.

Still, I never heard a Martin song yet that wasn't at least fun to listen to, especially when he's doing the vocal arrangements. One song from the show, "Gotta Dance," would have been perfect for Gene Kelly in an MGM musical; sung by Harold Lang (sort of the guy Broadway got for Gene Kelly parts after Kelly left), it was still impressive enough that Stephen Sondheim put it on a list of songs he wished he'd written.

And one song, "Shauny O'Shay," is at least slightly notable as an example of... maybe I shouldn't have said over-rhyming, since that's a pejorative term and I don't know if the rhyming kills the song. But it's certainly one of the most ambitiously packed rhyme schemes I've ever heard, with tons of internal rhymes, quadruple rhymes, and trick rhymes ("limits/dim, it's"). It may show Martin, writing a score alone for the first time -- he'd previously split songwriting duties with fellow composer-lyricist Ralph Blane -- trying too hard to show off, since I don't know that all the rhyming fits the laid-back mood of the song. But it's certainly worth hearing for fans of tight rhyming.

Incidentally, Steven Suskin's The Sound of Broadway Music says that this show was one of the first that involved the work of Robert Ginzler (Bye Bye Birdie), who became the busy Don Walker's primary "ghost" orchestrator for the next ten years. The book doesn't say which numbers Ginzler orchestrated, but some parts of this number sound like they could have been his work.

Another thing about "Shauny O'Shay" is that it's an example of the tricky relationship between pop music and musical theatre. According to Billboard, the actual character of Shauny O'Shay was eliminated from the show during tryouts, so the song went with him. But the creative team was informed that "Shauny O'Shay" was considered the only song in the score that had potential to get on the pop charts (it didn't, but nothing did from this show). So "it was finally put back to keep the disc jockeys and record companies happy, but didn't prove the potential hit it seemed to be at first." This was pretty common back in the days when pop hits came from Broadway shows, and when a pop hit was a huge plus for a musical's box-office; the producers had to think of the "exploitation" possibilities as well as the dramatic ones.

The article also mentioned how "If I Were a Bell" had been cut from the then-recent Guys and Dolls for a while, and that it was put back in after two weeks in part because it had already been recorded several times in anticipation of the opening. Though that song, at least, was not out of place in the show (and Frank Loesser claimed in the article that he never intended to leave it out entirely, just to revise it).

Here also is the "Gotta Dance" song -- much more normally rhymed -- that I mentioned before. You can see what I mean about how it would have been a perfect Gene Kelly song.

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