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.