"Music in the Air" at Encores!

I was stunned walking out after Music in the Air at the City Center that I had completely forgotten the melody to “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” I spent the entire intermission humming the oft-repeated hit song from this lost Kern & Hammerstein show until the lights went down. We were even treated to yet another encore during the second act. But lo and behold, as I was walking down the steps from the gallery the only song that I could recall was the rapturous “The Song is You.”

The musical, last seen in NY in a 1985 Town Hall concert revival (with John Reardon, Patrice Munsel, Kurt Peterson and Rebecca Luker), was a moderate success for Kern and Hammerstein in 1932, running for 342 performances and spawning two popular song hits (care to venture a guess there…?). A film version starring Gloria Swanson was released in 1934.

To say Music in the Air has a creaky libretto would be a colossal understatement. The story is highly contrived and was initially meant to be more of a send-up of operetta conventions than anything else. Naive country folks, a doctor, his beloved daughter, her love interest and… brace yourself… their walking club (also the choral singing society) go to Munich. The doctor, an amateur musician, has written a song and the townsfolk insist it is so good that he must have it published. Words are by the love interest. They will take it to his school friend turned music publisher. Of course the daughter will sing it and win over the publisher, as well as the lotharious librettist and his lover-muse-prima donna in residence. Both larger than life characters use the two naive kids as pawns in their romantic battles leading to the young girl starring in a new operetta in Munich. Oh, did I mention there was lederhosen? Yes, it’s that kind of show.

Now before you think all “gee willickers, it’s just like 42nd Street,” it’s not. There is an unusual honesty in the second act about the difficulties of show business, with the disagreeable musical director dropping the necessary truth bombs in order for the show to become a hit. He asks if its unfair that the livelihood of seventy or so people be threatened by a rank amateur with dreams of being on the stage. The girl agrees and goes back to Munich, humiliated only in her love life, but eyes opened to cosi fan tutti. Everything about it isn’t quite so appealing. But never fear, there are still two numbers and two romantic couplings to be repaired, all accompanied by the orchestra and the necessary plot machinations.

Okay. It isn’t much. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch. However, there is much to enjoy in the soaring Kern-Hammerstein score. Romantic, melodic and enough pastoral imagery to get us through until the next revival of The Sound of Music, it’s hard to resist. Interestingly, the team had just written the musical Show Boat which was one of the first attempts at progression in the musical as an art form. You had a show that combined elements, took on darker themes and bucked trends to create a powerful theatre experience, with most of the score serving dramatic functions for plot and character with some of the period crowd-pleasers tossed in for good measure. With Music in the Air (which would be Hammerstein’s last success until Oklahoma!) the team composed an entirely diegetic score, which is unusual for a musical. Most especially unusual for an operetta. Whenever a musical theatre song is diegetic it means that the character is aware that he or she is singing. For instance, Sally Bowles singing “Cabaret” or the “Parlor Songs” in Sweeney Todd. (This is also where the choral society walking to Munich comes to play. Again, it creaks… but alas that is period convention for you).

The show was given the usual Encores! treatment, with emphasis placed on the score and giving the audience a chance to hear fully restored orchestrations by the great Robert Russell Bennett, the premier orchestrator of the early years of the American musical. Sierra Boggess and Ryan Silverman were the young lovers, vanilla extract and all. It took a few minutes for the show to get jump-started. That happened when stars Douglas Sills and Kristin Chenoweth took the stage as the larger than life divas. They get the funniest moments and some of the better musical numbers (for instance the scenelet where they present the first act of the new show and “The Song is You”). Add to this sight gag of Sills towering over the diminutive Chenoweth, decked out as a brunette and dressed to the nines in period gowns. Dick Latessa and Marni Nixon are on hand to lend some minor support in the second half, the latter stopping the show with a wistful recollection of her hit solo (so many shades of Heidi Schiller in Follies I can’t even begin to tell you…)

While the show itself is virtuable unrevivable, I am grateful for the opportunity to see such a lost show. As one who appreciates seeing and hearing musical scores live, I relish in these opportunities – especially if there isn’t a cast album available to give the full experience. But I have to say having limited expectations, I was surprisingly charmed by the experience. Encores! tends to mix things up a bit, throwing out titles that aren’t as lost as their initial mission statement would lead you to believe, but also allowing us to see a show like the troublesome cult flop Juno, or the 1932 revue Face the Music.

Moving from the hills of Germany to the realm of Missitucky, the City Center’s third and final installment for this season will be the satiric Finian’s Rainbow from March 26-29. Now, if they would only listen give me Darling of the Day, Donnybrook!, A Time for Singing and Very Warm for May.

Musical Theatre Zen: Jerome Kern Revisited

A couple months ago I first posted about the musical theatre zen, as I call it. You know, when you hear a musical theatre song that is just so resplendent it transports you emotionally. I introduced the term by using “All the Things You Are,” which might very well be my favorite song, as an example.

Another glorious Hammerstein-Kern number is “Some Girl is on Your Mind,” a showstopper that was first introduced in their musical Sweet Adeline in 1929. The musical, which ran for 234 performances at the Hammerstein Theatre, was written as a vehicle for Helen Morgan, who had only two seasons before made a huge splash as Julie LaVerne in the original cast of Show Boat. The plot is paper thin: it concerns Addie, who sings at her father’s beer garden in Hoboken and her journey to Broadway stardom, with the trials and tribulations of romance that she encounters on her rise to fame. The show was a huge critical success and audiences came out in droves, though the musical was short-lived as a result of the onset of the Great Depression.The endlessly melodic score featured the gorgeous standard “Why Was I Born?” (which offered NY audiences another chance to see Morgan singing a torch song atop a piano) among many others, but to me, this particular song is a genuine standout.

The song was recorded on John McGlinn’s Broadway Showstoppers album.

From Miles Kreuger in the liner notes:

‘By the middle of the second act, Addie has stirred the hearts of three young men: Tom Martin, who has turned his affection towards Addie’s younger sister; weather James Day; and the shy and kindly composer Sid. They are drinking at a table at the Hoffman House in the company of James Thornton, a real-life vaudevillian veteran back to the 1880s and composer of several major songs of long ago, including “When You Were Sweet Sixteen.” (Thornton played himself in this production).

Tom, Jim, and Sid are all thinking of Addie, whose voice drifts in and out. This quartet with male chorus is surely one of the most original and hauntingly beautiful variations on a drinking song in the entire literature of musical theatre.”‘

The featured singers included Cris Groenendaal, Brent Barrett, George Dvorsky, Davis Gaines and Judy Kaye as the haunting, offstage voice of Addie (who is actually singing a section from “Why Was I Born?” a song she sings in the presence of all the affected gentlemen). The orchestrations are once again from my favorite orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett.

Mr. Kreuger isn’t wrong. While the show is considered to be considerably creaky (with its roots in soap operetta, its not hard to see why), the strength of the score is still admirable. When this song was performed in the Encores! concert presentation of Adeline in 1996, the audience practically tore the house apart. What’s fascinating to me is its idea and structure. You have three men singing of the same individual, each singing his own section, they are constantly brought together (assisted by the chorus) building to a soaring finish. However, the song doesn’t end with a musical button, but with a wistful coda that decrescendos to very soft and quiet final chord.

Listening to this and “All the Things You Are” back to back, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Kern is the greatest melodist in the history of musical theatre. A bold opinion, I’m certain, especially with the beloved Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, et al, et al, who have all contributed great scores and songs of terrific quality and beauty. However for me there is something extra special in the way Kern builds a phrase or takes you from one note to the next. It’s sometimes surprising, sometimes stirring and sometimes moving. You may disagree with me on that thought, and that’s okay by me – we all have our opinions for sure, but I do feel there is ample evidence to back me up.

You can hear for yourself. Here is Some Girl is on Your Mind. Enjoy.

Musical Theatre Zen

Musical Theatre Zen is a term I use for those rare occasions that a musical number is so transportative and transcendent that the moment will forever burnish in my memory and bring myself and my soul to a place of extraordinary warmth, comfort and serenity. All is right with the world. I’ve felt it when I saw Barbara Cook sing “Ice Cream,” I felt it the first time I heard “Dividing Day” from The Light in the Piazza and on several other occasions. Here is one of those:

The Music: Jerome Kern
The Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
The Orchestration: Robert Russell Bennett

The show was Very Warm For May, a flop musical comedy from 1939 that failed because Max Gordon disliked a farcical subplot involving a gangster chase sufficiently turning the musical into a summer stock affair similar to the smash hit Babes in Arms, which opened two years prior. Mixed reviews and audience indifference led to the show’s shuttering after 59 performances. Kern went to Hollywood, where he continued to work until his death. Hammerstein would eventually resurface in 1943 with Oklahoma! and Carmen Jones. In spite of its obscurity, the Kern-Hammerstein score was something special, as evidenced in the recordings of the original cast that have surfaced in recent years. The recording of the “song,” “All the Things You Are,” was featured on John McGlinn’s Broadway Showstoppers CD. In context, the song is presented as a double duet. One couple offstage is soliloquizing on the verse, alternating back and forth about their repressed feelings for the other (here voiced by Jeanne Lehman and Cris Groenandaal). At a certain point in the song, the couple onstage rehearsing are able to express what the lovers cannot (sung by Rebecca Luker and George Dvorsky) and supported by the ensemble. It’s my favorite song.

This is sheer poetry (aka, the chorus):

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
Some day my happy arms will hold you,
And some day I’ll know that moment divine,
When all the things you are, are mine!