Pure Joy

The other night, a good friend and I were having a conversation about No, No Nanette and he seemed both surprised and bemused that I was just over the moon espousing the show’s virtues. Though it was two and a half years ago that I saw the show at Encores!, my memories of the Broadway ready revival are vivid and fresh. (Why oh why didn’t this one transfer?!) When asked why I like it so much, the simplest answer I could give was that “It’s pure joy from start to finish.” I’ve been giving that statement a great deal of thought. It’s one of the most honest answers I’ve ever given, but one of the most unique. That’s not to say I don’t find myself regularly having a miserable time at a musical. Far from it. But there are so few shows or productions that give that fizzy champagne/good time feeling – and are able to sustain that feeling from the beginning to end. These are the musicals where I find myself smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the overture until long after I’ve left the theatre, and mostly because of the sheer happiness I feel as a result.

Nanette is definitely one of those shows. The 1971 revisal that is. I’ve heard the original 1925 show with its original arrangements and orchestrations and I honestly feel that they somehow did it better in ’71. The experience of getting the show up and running was a bit of a nightmare, but it produced a surprise smash at the 46th Street Theatre. Folks wanted nostalgia and this show offered a wonderful slice of period flavor, with a familiar score, a simple farcical plot and tap-happy showstoppers. Ralph Burns did the orchestrations, Buster Davis did the vocal arrangements and Luther Henderson provided incidental and dance music.

I knew I was in for a treat the moment the orchestra started playing the overture with strains of “I Want to Be Happy” and I was flooded with warmth from head to toe once the twin grand pianos started playing during “Tea for Two.” My happiness didn’t let up for a long time; I was humming “I Want to Be Happy” ad nauseam, listening to the superb 1971 cast recording. The score (music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) is filled with songs that are breezy, light and evoke another era altogether. Listening to the original cast album is just as much fun as seeing the show, from that delightful overture to the finale of “I Want to Be Happy” with the entire cast strumming ukuleles.

Another one is Mame, with one of the freshest, most wondrous original cast albums ever recorded. It gets off to a sock start with those first trilling strings and winds that soar up the octave as the brass belts out the title song. Its orchestrations by Phil Lang are pitch perfect, brassy, bold and exciting. It starts the ball rolling with one gem after another. The Mame score may not be anything revolutionary, but it was musical comedy writing at its finest. Easily my favorite Jerry Herman score and I’ve enjoyed them all. Angela Lansbury shimmers in her star turn – the trumpet blast that was added for the 1998 reissue makes her entrance in gold pajamas all the more vivid. The original show made a musical theatre star of Lansbury, who took the town by storm. Each performance sparkles: Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Jane Connell, Frankie Michaels, Jerry Lanning and Charles Braswell are all wonderful and blessedly definitive. The ensemble is stunning – big voices, lots of great arrangements and an energy that just flies out from the speakers.

Then there’s the title song, a master class of musical comedy unto itself – and the leading lady doesn’t even sing a word of it! It starts slow and builds and builds through several choruses. Then the ensemble breaks into a spirited gallop, by which point the leading lady is still silent but overjoyed and moved. Just when you think it can’t get better, Lang and Pippin bring the gallop back in for the first pullback which consists of a cakewalk across the stage (props to Onna White for the choreography). But it’s not done! It modulates up a half step for the final section, a full-out fortissimo to bring it to its requisite big finish. The banjo is only measures away from needing new strings, the trumpet is blasting a high solo while the trombones descend in the bass line. All through this, the drummer is steadily beating out a simple but insistent 4/4 downbeat. It’s enough to make you stand up and cheer in your living room.

The album, superbly produced by Goddard Lieberson, captures the high spirits of those first days when the show was getting ovations like you would not believe. (SarahB has relayed the story of the title song in Philadelphia bringing the show to such a halt, theatregoers were standing on their chairs). The orchestrations are beautifully balanced and there is that light touch of reverb that made those Columbia albums the best ever recorded. You’d think they’d just recorded it in a theatre, full costume and all. I even like “That How Young I Feel,” which is the one number from the score that most dismiss (though I do wish they had recorded its jitterbug dance break). Mame is an album I would bring to a desert island without having to think twice. I’ve never seen a stage production of the show that has equaled the album, but I’m still waiting for the Broadway revival with Donna Murphy.

These are the kind of things I turn to when I want a score that will make me feel happier. Joy at its simplest is a hard emotion to evoke without causing cavities or a diabetic coma. There are many, many shows that try to force that joy on the audience and those usually seem mechanical and fall flat. The joy I speak of isn’t something tangible. You can’t quite put the finger on it, but there is that quality that makes it stand out from the rest (not unlike star presence). It’s easier to charm, provoke or even get a laugh, than it is to evoke the feeling of pure, unadulterated happiness and elation. There are performances on other albums that give me joy, even if the score doesn’t, or a song here or there. But it’s incredibly hard for a show from first note to last to do it.

These are two of mine, but I know that there are others. What I’d like to know is: what scores bring you joy?

12 thoughts on “Pure Joy”

  1. First off, thanks so much for this blog. I’m a loyal & avid reader!

    Secondly, on the subject of joy, I agree that Mame is a prime example. I think that is one of Jerry Herman’s real talents as a composer – creating shows that make you smile. One of my favourites is La Cage aux Folles. I had the pleasure of seeing it this summer on Broadway and absolutely loved it. Songs like “The Best of Times”, “I am what I am”, “With Anne on my arm” (and I could go on) are all life-celebrating songs that create pure joy for me!

  2. No No Nanette in 1971 was absolute bliss. Ruby Keeler. Patsy Kelly. Jack Guilford. Bobby Van. Helen Gallagher. And the chorus girls dancing on beach balls. 39 short years ago. Thanks for the memory.

  3. fun selection for the image at the top of the post and great post. i couldn’t agree more about mame — the film version. i’m one of those oddballs that was raised on that movie and prefer its accompanying soundtrack to that of lansbury’s. no, lucy couldn’t sing. no, the movie doesn’t compare to everyone’s memories of the original stage version. the thing no one can deny, though, is that it’s kind of fun watching lucy in the role because she wanted to do it so bad. she was the first person to say she couldn’t sing or dance, but she gave it her best and i still think it’s a really fun movie.

  4. along with the previous post, i would have to say that ball’s role as “wildcat” gives off a strong original cast recording. the songs are extremely catchy and lucy does an admirable job in the role. she is supported by a very strong cast and it’s one of those albums i listen to quite frequently. it was rare for a time, but i believe it can be found fairly easy now and i would suggest taking a listen to it.

  5. La Cage and also Dolly have that similar sense of joy. Mack and Mabel’s joy is undercut by the rather dark story. I went with Mame strictly because its my favorite! Jerry Herman’s style echoes his own positivity and optimism. And thank you so much for reading!!

  6. We’ll have to agree to disagree about the merits of the film version, though on reflection I realize it was the first time I saw Auntie Mame in any context. It was quickly supplanted when I saw the Roz Russell film a short time later. But that score is big win — and I would gladly accept a big Broadway revival!

  7. “Wildcat” is a lot of fun! Have you ever seen the clip of Lucy and Paula Stewart performing “Hey, Look Me Over!” on the Ed Sullivan Show?

  8. I love the score, but I’m left with that last image of Gavin Creel lying in repose on an American flag. The sort of knocks out my personal joy buzzer. However, dancing onstage in the post-show encore was one of the greatest moments of my life!!

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