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Archive for Sunday, November 24, 1996

OLD BROADWAY SHOWTUNES OUTPLAY MODERN REMAKES

November 24, 1996

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The current "Smithsonian" tells us about a big exhibit the institution is offering about the American musical comedy, theatrical and movie. As I read the article and looked at the illustrations, I thought about the two radio series I did about the musical theater and the movie musical. I had songs (not all vintage, obviously) going back to "The Black Crook" of 1866 and "The Jazz Singer" of 1927.

I have battled to find a new needle for my turntable and anticipated the obsolescence of those hundreds (thousands?) of long play albums. I've been transferring a lot of this wonderful stuff to tape. I go around singing such long-forgotten songs as "Evelina" from "Bloomer Girl," "I Still See Elisa" from "Paint Your Wagon," and "Mandy" from the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1919."

I have to tell you that this is an enriching experience. Though I don't have the show album from "Where's Charley?" I do have the great song from that musical, "Once in Love with Amy," which Ray Bolger sang and danced to. (Oh, the girls named Amy who have muttered as I've sung that one to them.) From more recent shows, my favorite is Glynis Johns doing "Send In the Clowns," from "A Little Night Music." As I wrote this column I was copying "Company." I don't care much for "Company," by Stephen Sondheim, the same fellow who did "A Little Night Music." The man is probably a genius, and his lyrics are eloquent and literate, but he hasn't written much you remember. I copied his "Into the Woods" the other day. Interesting. His "Sunday in the Park with George" was interesting to see but not to hear. His "Sweeney Todd" is pretty sick, really, though "A Little Priest," about grinding people up into sausage, is funny. And nauseating.

I've now transferred most of the great standards to cassette: "Show Boat," "Oklahoma!," "My Fair Lady," "Hello, Dolly!," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Kiss Me, Kate." I seem to know every note of these, and a new recording wouldn't sound right. I have the revival of "Guys and Dolls," one of the grand ones, but it's somehow like a Time-Life big band imitation, a bunch of people trying to do Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" or Tommy Dorsey's "Song of India." Fake.

I have a lot of albums that aren't quite there with "Oklahoma!" Years ago, the people at KLWN gave me a fine set. I also haunted the used record shops when I was doing my radio series. Have you ever heard Katharine Hepburn in "Coco," about the French designer? She's dreadful, quite frankly. Almost as bad is Julie Harris in "Skyscraper." "Golden Boy" had Sammy Davis Jr., who at least could sing, but the songs aren't much. I picked up Shirley Booth in "Juno," from "Juno and the Paycock." Avoid it, although the album may be historic, as might Anthony Perkins in "Greenwillow," Tony Randall in "Oh, Captain!," and Farley Granger in "First Impressions." There is little to worry about here.

A show that failed, but one I like, is Harold Rome's "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." This one gave us Barbra Streisand in a comic classic, "Miss Marmelstein." "Miss Liberty" has "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor." This is magnificent. That massive hit, "A Chorus Line," has little other than "What I Did for Love" and "One," but these two make the whole show worth it.

Have you ever heard "Pins and Needles," another by Harold Rome, produced by the Ladies' Garment Workers Union? There isn't a weak song in the whole show, and "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance" is a special pleasure. Have you heard an antique called "Shuffle Along," all-black, Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake songs? This was one the Smithsonian reconstructed a few years ago, along with "Funny Face," "Lady Be Good," "Whoopee," "Anything Goes" and many other classics. And the Smithsonian offered "Hot Chocolates," and one of the greatest songs of all, "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Well, I haven't even talked about the movie musicals. Maybe I will some other time. A guy called me and complained when I did my shows about Broadway musicals. He said I should have been doing something "relevant." I told him to be my guest and to do something relevant himself.

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