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CD Review

Harold Arlen

Life Begins at 8:40

  • Kate Baldwin
  • Philip Chaffin
  • Christopher Fitzgerald
  • Montego Glover
  • Rebecca Luker
  • Brad Oscar
  • Faith Prince
  • Graham Rowat
  • Jessica Stone
Unnamed orchestra/Aaron Gandy
PS Classics PS-1090 TT: 75:21
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Thanks, Tommy Krasker!

As far as I'm concerned, with the exception of Stephen Sondheim, the quality of Broadway music has plummeted since the late Fifties. The Broadway songwriter these days has no idea how to write the jazz-based song that fueled American pop from the Teens through the Forties. We have been pummeled with essentially operetta and the cursed singer-songwriter. Occasionally, we get essentially rock oldies revues like Smoky Joe's Café or rock pastiches like Grease. Lion King was terrific theater, but does anybody willingly recall any of Elton John's score?

Research into Broadway's Golden Age began to heat up in the Seventies, with the discovery of the Secaucus Trunk, which contained original production scores of classic Broadway musicals by the likes of Kern, Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, Youmans, and others – scores to classic shows like Of Thee I Sing and Show Boat, thought irrevocably lost. That notion wasn't far-fetched. Even the creators regarded their shows as the creations of a single season. Besides, the real money was to be made in sheet music for the home market and in radio air play, where rearranging was the norm. Popular music was business rather than art. When Gershwin thought to present his songs as "legit" composition efforts, he created George Gershwin's Songbook, his publisher's vocal arrangements coupled with his brilliant solo-piano paraphrases as "breaks." In the meantime, recording has caught up with scholarship, thanks to conductors John McGlinn, Eric Stern, and John Mauceri, and to producers like Tommy Krasker. The latter, a real spark plug, has created handsome recordings of classic Gershwin Broadway scores, as near the original production texts as possible. In many ways, these recordings have themselves contributed to American theater history and have altered older critical notions about musicals.

Recently, Krasker has turned his attention to the revue. The revue was a loose collection of songs, isolated production numbers, and comic skits, often topical, with not even the minimal "drama" of the musical. Often, the revue provided a way for young songwriters to break onto Broadway, and often the results were stellar. Gershwin had the Ziegfeld Follies and George White's Scandals of various years (creatures of a season, again). Rodgers and Hart had the Garrick Gaieties. Outstanding revues included Kay Swift's Fine and Dandy, Dietz and Schwartz's Band Wagon, Berlin's As Thousands Cheer (to my mind, the greatest of the Broadway revues), Harold Rome's Pins and Needles (for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union), and Arlen's Life Begins at 8:40.

Incidentally, this revival has largely passed Irving Berlin by, a terrible shame. I suspect it stems from the fact that most of the A-list Broadway composers published with Chappell (now Warners), while Berlin had his own publishing company, which so far may have refused to grant permission. I have no idea whether this is true. If so, the current Berliners need to relent.

Life Begins at 8:40 was one of the wittiest of the revues. Even its title is a sophisticated pun – 8:40 being the standard evening start on Broadway. In addition to Arlen's music, it had words by E.Y. Harburg and Ira Gershwin. Harburg had come off working for the Follies exhausted and agreed to Arlen's proposal only if he could have help, so he turned to his high school best friend, Ira, temporarily "at liberty" while brother George worked on Porgy and Bess. The cast boasted the sublime song-and-dance man Ray Bolger and the genius Bert Lahr. Arlen and Harburg's collaboration was as lustrous as the Gershwins'. Their work together includes Jamaica, Bloomer Girl, The Wizard of Oz, and in addition to the songs here, "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Lydia, the Tattoo'd Lady." For an Arlen score, it's not quite top-drawer, mainly because it doesn't draw enough on the blues to suit me. I think his strongest Broadway score is St. Louis Woman, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Nevertheless, Life yielded several standards including "Fun to be Fooled," "You're a Builder-Upper," "What Can You Say in a Love Song (That Hasn't Been Said Before)," and the insouciant "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block."

The overtly comic numbers combine sophisticated wit with belly laughs. In "Quartet Erotica," Rabelais, Boccaccio, de Maupassant, and Balzac (the last name pronounced in the crudest way possible) lament the decline in their shock value, what with Ulysses and Lady Chatterly's Lover as competition.

Once we were quite the lads;
We thought that our erotica
Was very, very hotica
But now we're only four unsullied Galahads

Noël Coward's Design for Living gets sent up in "C'est la Vie." Two Frenchman discover not only that they're about to jump off a bridge into the Seine because of a dame, but that it's the same dame. She arrives in the nick of time, and they manage an arrangement:

We're living in the smart upper sets!
Let other lovers sing their duets!
Duets are made by the bourgeoisie-o,
But only God can make a trio!

C'est la vie!
C'est la vie!
In a cute little love nest for three

But the highpoint is E.Y. Harburg's comic masterpiece, written especially for Bert Lahr, "Things!" which mercilessly twits the poetic genre of which Joyce Kilmer and Edgar Guest were the best-known exemplars. It's a forerunner of the Cowardly Lion's "Courage" (another Harburg creation for Lahr) in Wizard of Oz.

When the frost is on the punkin,
And the clouds out in the west have sunken,
Can't you hear those banjos plunkin'?
Things, just Things!

Tommy Krasker has done his usual superb job on production. Great liner notes (if nothing else, you'll discover who Grover Whalen was), incredible care on the orchestrations, original and reconstructed (Hans Spialek and Robert Russell Bennett did the originals), and a cast almost as good as can be got. Unfortunately, they compete against Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr, something I wouldn't wish on any performer. "Things!" especially falls flat. You can hear and see in your head what Lahr would have done with it. This was, after all, the show that to a large extent made his career, and "Things!" was His Moment. Furthermore, many of the players camp the camp, to an embarrassing degree. Notable among the cast, however, Rebecca Luker and Graham Rowat escape that particular curse. On the other hand, when the cast surrenders to the material, the results are wonderful. The members of "Quartet Erotica" soft-shoe their innocent way into our hearts.

Now we need As Thousands Cheer.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.