Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Musical Flashbacks

Prior to the advent of rock 'n roll, much of the great American songbook was derived from the scores of Broadway and Hollywood musicals. Shows by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter yielded tune after tune that became part of the nation's cultural consciousness.

A musical like Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun might produce 8-10 songs that would go on to become standards. Shows like Pajama Game might produce hits like "Hey, There" and "Steam Heat" while The Music Man could yield "76 Trombones," "Till There Was You," and "Ya Got Trouble."

In the early 1960s, producer Ben Bagley recorded a series of LPs which "revisited" Broadway's aging and/or dead composers to mine hidden treasures from their song collections. This trend continued with Varese Sarabande's Lost In Boston series of recordings (which features songs that were cut from various shows during their out-of-town tryouts).

As a Broadway composer matures and his body of work becomes ripe for academic examination, lost songs can find new audiences. This can happen in several forms: First, there is the musical review. Side by Side by Sondheim, Ain't Misbehavin (featuring the music of Fats Waller), Jerry's Girls (featuring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), Sophisticated Ladies (featuring the music of Duke Ellington), Putting It Together (featuring the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim), The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through The Eyes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward's Sweet Potato, And The World Goes 'Round (music and lyrics of Fred Ebb and John Kander) and Simply Sondheim easily come to mind.

Summer Pops concerts often include themed performances such as this weekend's concert by the San Francisco Symphony featuring the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Sometimes a vocal artist will record a series of songs which focus an interpretive laser beam on a specific composer's work. Think of Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim, Brent Barrett's The Kander and Ebb Album or Sondheim Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall. Hell, legendary cabaret singer Julie Wilson recorded "songbook" albums" devoted entirely to the works of Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen!

Occasionally, tribute concerts to Broadway composers such as the prolific Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Alan Jay Lerner, Harold Rome, Meredith Willson, and Bob Merrill may get brief runs at a specialty showcase like New York's 92nd Street YMHA. The growing riches of YouTube include television clips from the Ed Sullivan Show and other programs that once showcased Broadway talent. But not every songsmith has the box office clout or has become a household name like Leonard Bernstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. A surprising number of composers (of some very successful Broadway musicals) seem to have disappeared from Tin Pan Alley. Teams such as Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, and Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt -- despite producing the scores for such prize-winning musicals as The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, The Fantasticks, My Fair Lady, Camelot, 110 in the Shade, Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello! hardly qualify as household names. Their estates may be raking in royalties, but their music is far from popular.

Then, of course, there are the "jukebox musicals" (in which some sort of plot or through story has been devised that allows songs from a composer's catalogue to be slotted into an evening's entertainment). This genre probably started sometime around Beatlemania and has gone on to include Movin' Out (featuring music and lyrics by Billy Joel), All Shook Up (featuring the music and lyrics of Elvis Presley) and LoveMusik (featuring the music and lyrics of Kurt Weill). Later this month, the ultimate jukebox musical -- Mamma Mia (which features the music of ABBA) -- debuts on the silver screen with Meryl Streep as its newest star.

The latest jukebox musical to hit the boards features the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, Rags, The Baker's Wife, Personals, Children of Eden, Working, and Wicked. With a book by David Stern, Snapshots has been directed by Robert Kelley, the founder and artistic director of Theatreworks.

The plot device is fairly simple: As a woman prepares to leave her husband, he interrupts her as he enters their attic. As they argue, they stumble on a series of snapshots which chronicle their relationship. Thinking back over the years, they realize (through a series of "interactive" musical flashbacks in which four other performers act out scenes from a marriage gone wrong) where they made wrong assumptions, could have taken more initiative, and perhaps placed blame unfairly on their partner for unintended wounds.

The show features some of Schwartz's most popular songs, including Popular, Meadowlark, and Corner of the Sky. As performed by Beth DeVries, Molly Bell, and Courtney Stokes (as Sue at various stages of her life) and Ray Wills, Michael Marcotte and Brian Crum (as Dan at various stages of his life), the presentation is quite lively. There were plenty of moments of hilarity and bitterness to balance out the evening.

The problem I had was that I ended up not really caring about this couple or their problems. As the evening wore on, I found a lot of Schwartz's songs starting to sound alike. And to my shock and consternation, every time a certain musical phrase or snippet of a lyric was heard, I was reminded of a segment of Seth McFarlane's Family Guy entitled "Simpsons Already Did It" (although in this case it was the name Sondheim rather than Simpsons that lit up like a neon sign).

Still, when Meadowlark soars (as it did from the first time Patti LuPone sang it during the San Francisco tryout of The Baker's Wife) it provides a thrilling experience in any concert hall or theater. Though performed with gusto and sensitivity, few of the other songs featured in Snapshots rose to the level of Meadowlark, which is a genuine classic. While the breadth of Schwartz's songbook gets good exposure, I'm not sure that this show will last very long if it ever makes it to Broadway. It does, however, seem like a perfect vehicle for community theaters, college theater departments and dinner theater productions all over America.

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