Seth Rudetsky Deconstructs Barbara Cook

When it comes to certain Golden Age musicals, I find that there are titles that are more likely to raise the eyebrow of your fellow enthusiasts than others. One of the titles that I love and take some flack for is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. I’ve heard enough people scoff at it, calling it corny and old-fashioned. Some have suggested that its sacrilege to enjoy the show that trumped West Side Story for Best Musical. The show itself, about a con man who brings music and change to a small town in 1912 Iowa, was something of an unexpected surprise smash.

Willson was known as a bandleader and musical director for “The Big Show,” a popular radio program hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. He was also a two time Oscar nominee for his musical scoring of the classics The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes. He worked for eight years on numerous drafts of The Music Man, loosely basing the show on upbringing in Mason City, Iowa and people he knew in his life. With the encouragement of Frank Loesser, Willson created this unique, one-of-a-kind musical comedy that makes ample use of marching band techniques, contrafactum and counterpoint. The show opened in late 1957 and took critics and audiences by storm, winning five Tonys and racking up 1,375 performances.

The 2000 revival with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker is where I cemented my appreciation for the show and score. I had seen the fun feature film (exceptional for its preservation of Robert Preston’s Tony-winning star turn) but never realized what a joyous show it was until March 15, 2001 when I was taken by friends to the Neil Simon Theatre as an surprise graduation gift.

There is one song in the stage show that didn’t make the cut in the 1962 film (we won’t discuss that awful 2003 TV remake with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth here – I’m saving that for a rainy day). “My White Knight,” a plaintive ballad sung by Marian in the middle of the first act expressing her deepest romantic longings, was replaced by the more upbeat “Being in Love.” In an unusual move, Willson only contributed half a song – “My White Knight’s” bridge remained intact. The second song is nice, but it doesn’t capture the essence of Marian’s MO quite as well (in fact it seems to portray as man-mad).

I’ve never quite felt that “My White Knight” is as well known as it should be. It makes for an arrested stage moment – the up-to-now priggish and uppity librarian, who hints at her wants in “Goodnight My Someone” finally opens up to the audience and in turn wins their affection. It’s simple, yet soaring. The night I saw the revival, Rebecca Luker brought the show to a crashing halt with the song’s final high Ab that seemed to go on forever.

However, the song was introduced to Tony-winning effect in the original Broadway production by Barbara Cook, who is currently back on Broadway in Sondheim on Sondheim. For as much as I enjoy Luker’s rendition, and that revival experience, the original cast album cannot be beaten. Preston has never been bettered, it’s a charming representation of the score (and sounds pristine – unusual for Capital Records) and Cook is absolutely radiant in what was her only Broadway blockbuster. For an interesting alternative, I suggest listening to her 1975 Carnegie Hall album, where she sings a very different version of the song that is mostly comic patter which segues into the familiar ballad.

Here Seth Rudetsky (who generally would like less soprano and more riffing, but we’ll agree to disagree) confesses unending admiration for Barbara while deconstructing her rendition of the song from the original cast recording:

I’m with Coco

Lots of brouhaha over the late night talk shows this week (talk of a sequel to The Late Shift? yikes!) and I might as well declare myself Team Conan. I’ve been a fan since ’98, when my older brother introduced me to The Late Night 5th anniversary special. For years, I’ve found his humor smart, offbeat and strangely endearing. My brothers and I were excited to see him take on The Tonight Show, and looked forward to seeing the new direction the show would take with Conan’s sensibility over the next few years. One of those insufferable yet banal life choices was whether to watch Conan or Craig Ferguson, as I am a big fan of both. Having Conan on the Tonight Show made it easier – one right after the other. It’s also amazing to look at the executives who seem to be acting as if they’d never worked in television before. This has to be one of the biggest PR nightmares in recent TV memory. Now with Jay returning to his old timeslot and Conan leaving NBC (and Jimmy Kimmel pwning Leno like it was nobody’s business last evening) it will be interesting to see how this unending drama plays out.

Back in 2001, the producers of the Broadway revival of The Music Man were looking for a replacement for star Craig Bierko. While Will & Grace star Eric McCormack assumed the role for his summer hiatus, one of the original choices they approached was Conan O’Brien. The soon to be former Tonight Show host is a fan of the musical; he famously used it as an inspiration for the classic “Marge & the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons from back in that series’ early years. (It also featured a Harold Hill crowd-rouser type song called, simply, “Monorail!”). The talk show host was very much interested, but due to his TV commitments they just couldn’t work around the scheduling.

I hope Conan is back on TV – and soon. I also hope he moves back to NY, as I think this city is more his groove. For a trip down memory lane, here is his opening number from the 2006 Emmy telecast to the famed “Trouble” from that aforementioned Meredith Willson classic. Enjoy: