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Category Archives: Musicals

The American Musical – Happy 4th of July!

71392_t607I was going to show the unreal and completely amazing “Say It With Firecrackers” dance by Fred Astaire – from Holiday Inn – but it seems to have disappeared off the internet, which is a very odd phenomena. It was there recently. Perhaps it will be back again. It is from the movie Holiday Inn, as I said, which is a movie often viewed at Christmas time, but really has a song for every holiday imaginable. Fred Astaire stars with Bing Crosby and the music is by Irving Berlin. For holiday fare, you can’t get much better than Bing Crosby singing, Fred Astaire dancing and Irving Berlin’s music. In the firecracker dance, Fred Astaire’s character ad-libs a dance, using firecrackers that he tosses on the stage. They crack and pop and he dances in time.

But anyway, since I can’t show the dance, I thought I would mention a few musicals, that are the perfect way to celebrate the 4th of July, and remember the rich history of our nation…musical history, that is. They’re not very historically accurate.

Musicals are a uniquely American contribution to the musical world. Much of the early American popular music was taken from our musicals and revues in the 1910s-’30s. The American musical developed as a combination of European Opera, Negro Spirituals, jazz, Jewish music, American folk music, blues – in short, a beautiful blend of musical traditions. Here are some examples of uniquely American musicals.

yankeedoodledandy2Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942, with James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I can’t think of a performer more associated with patriotism than George M. Cohan, a huge figure in the 1900s -1910s and in the musical theater world. Not only did he write songs – “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary Is a Grand Old Name,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” – but he produced musicals, wrote the stories and acted and danced. He is considered a pivotal and important figure in the development of the musical – a step up from vaudeville and revues, where he at least used the songs and dances as a part of the story.

In Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney plays Cohan. It’s a biopic of his life, from childhood to WWII. I grew up watching this film and I loved it, especially for the dancing. Most people know Cagney for his gangster roles and are surprised to hear that he got his start as a dancer on vaudeville, but I was the opposite. I knew he could dance and was surprised to hear that he usually played tough, mean guys.

The movie was made during WWII, so it’s very focused on the flag and people cheerfully entering WWI and WWII. There is even a conversation between Cohan and an actor playing Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt was referred to, had his picture in, and portrayed by actors more than any president I know, and while he was president! Can you imagine that with Bush or Obama?). All the songs in the movie are the songs written by George M. Cohan (except one song at the end, “Off the Record” written by Rodgers and Hart). It’s a rousing, fun, inspiring, heart-warming film. It always leaves me with a glow and I hum the tunes all day long.

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Show Boat – 1936, with Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Allan Jones, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein

The most famous version of Show Boat was made in 1951, with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, but the best one, I believe, is the version made in 1936 at Universal Studios, which has only just been released on DVD. It is based on the 1927 musical, by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Coming a little before such composers as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, Kern had his start in the 1910s and 20s (though he went on to compose many more musicals, many of which were movie musicals) and is credited as being the one to most successfully bridge the gap between operetta and a more American style of song and paved the way for people like Gershwin with plots about people who actually lived in America.

Show Boat was based on a popular book at the time, about the riverboat life, racism, women loving their no-account men, endurance, sacrifice. It stars Irene Dunne in the lead, as Magnolia and she does an excellent job of playing her as the character ages through the story. There is Helen Morgan as Julie, the woman who is partly black, but passes as a white woman and breaks the listener’s heart singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill”. Perhaps the best part of the movie is the performance of the riverboat hand, Joe, played by Paul Robeson. You have to hear his version of “Ol’ Man River.” It’s powerful. Although he was not the first to play Joe, the part was written for him and Kern said that he got the idea from hearing Robeson’s speaking voice.

Show Boat is considered a turning point in American musicals and one of the only musicals of its time to actually be revived today.

thGMHTNUC9Meet Me In St. Louis – 1944, with Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, Leon Ames

A combination of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Skip to My Lou” ) and originals songs written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,”) Meet Me in St. Louis is a heartwarming, nostalgic story about a family from 1904, when the world’s fair is going to occur in their home city. Judy Garland is, of course, the star, and it is one of her finest movies (along with The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born).

It’s a beautiful movie, music, acting, costumes, sets, singing. I actually didn’t care for it much when I was younger, but recently I have fallen in love with it – the effervescent good humor and affection. It might be considered rather sentimental, but it is a lovely sentiment, about family and young love and belonging to a certain place – things we ought never to lose sight of. It struck a chord with contemporary audiences, too. It was made in 1944, during WWII, and people loved it. It was considered a small travesty that it wasn’t nominated for best picture (Going My Way won, another sentimental and popular film).

By far, the greatest hit from that movie was the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s one of the last great classic Christmas songs to be written. The movie is often viewed during Christmas time, but it actually begins in the summer, goes to fall, Christmas, then ends in the spring and I think makes wonderful viewing any time of the year.

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Annie, Get Your Gun – 1950, with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel, written by Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” He wrote more holiday music than any composer I know of. He was wildly popular, a celebrity himself, and his career lasted over a half a century, with his first hit in 1911. He is the ultimate immigrant success story. Born in what is now Belarus, he changed his name from Israel Bielin to Berlin. He could hardly play the piano, couldn’t read music, but become the most successful and durable (except possibly Richard Rodgers) of composers. He even wrote his own lyrics.

 Annie Get Your Gun was one of his later hit shows. Originally opened on Broadway in 1946, it was made into a movie in 1950. It encompasses that theme that has always been very close to America’s identify and idea of itself: the American west. The musical takes quite a few liberties with the Annie Oakley story, but that isn’t usually an issue in musicals. In life, Annie Oakley had a very good relationship with her husband and fellow sharpshooter, Frank Butler. He promoted her career and never once seems to have been jealous, knowing she was the better shot. However, in the musical, they have a rather more combative relationship.

There’s Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and it’s a tremendous spectacle. There is the fun song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can” and it was here that the song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was introduced.

cF7UktShDq5wjD5Up7GqOrWhGkHAn American in Paris – 1951, with Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin

It’s not my absolute favorite movie, but An American in Paris is certainly memorable and an excellent introduction to some of the music of George Gershwin. Gershwin is the quintessential American composer. His “Rhapsody in Blue” was the first piece of music that was both classical and jazzy. He composed hit songs, an opera (Porgy and Bess), several classical works, and many musicals for both Broadway and Hollywood. He was brilliant, but tragically, he died when he was only 38, in 1937.

Not only is this an excellent showcase for Gershwin, but it is an excellent showcase for Gene Kelly. A dynamic and athletic dancer, he wanted to show that dancing and ballet was not sissy, but could be very masculine. He did all the choreography and it was his idea to do Gershwin’s piece “An American in Paris” as a dance where the characters go in and out of different, famous paintings. He received an honorary Oscar for his choreography and dance and the film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, which is unusual, since musicals traditionally have been looked down as a lesser art form than drama.

Personally, I think Americans should be proud of their musicals and musical and dance history. It is the combination of many musical and ethnic backgrounds, full of exuberance and joy and energy and feeling and, I believe, is unfairly overlooked in music history. From Scott Joplin to George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby – there’s so much richness to be discovered and appreciated.

As a bonus, here is Paul Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River.”

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2014 in Movie Musicals, Musicals

 

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Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DeBose Heyward

I don’t live in Seattle, but I can catch a ferry and get to Seattle and make a day trip of it. We drive to the ferry, park, take the ferry over the Puget Sound and walk to wherever we’re going and, mercifully, The 5th Avenue Theatre is only a fifteen minute walk from the ferry.

There’s nothing like seeing live musical theater. I love movies, but there’s a thrill that comes with actually being there, the connection with the music, the performers and audience. Every time I sit in the audience and the overture begins, it such a thrill of anticipation and excitement, it’s electric and almost the best part of any performance. You can literally feel the entire audience’s anticipation. Several weeks ago, when I went to see Porgy and Bess, the conductor began his down beat and I watched his head pop up and down in the pit as the music soared out of it. Music was meant to be heard live.

Sometimes, getting to the theater can be an adventure. It’s rained once and my umbrella turned inside out, repeatedly, while I kept bumping my cousin in the head with it until we gave it up and let ourselves get soaked. The worst is when I was getting off the ferry and slipped on a wet spot. My right leg slipped forward and my left knee slipped down…onto the cement. When I got up, there was a lovely tear in the knee of my pants and I was bleeding. We had to trail around Seattle looking for a Bartell drugstore to get band aids. Hole in pants, bloodstains and all, we still saw the musical (it was Cinderella) and I still have the scar.

Fortunately, in Seattle people are very casual and you can literally show up at a musical in pajamas without raising eyebrows (though I don’t recall seeing pajamas).

Several weeks ago I saw Porgy and Bess, which first opened in 1935. It’s been called a “folk opera” and was written by George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward, the author of the book Porgy. It was meant to be an opera. It certainly sounds like an opera to me, musically. No one but operatically trained singers could perform the songs, though it is sometimes likened to a musical as well.The original opera, as performed in 1935, was apparently 4 hours long and had no spoken dialogue. The version I saw was the Broadway touring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was adapted in 2011. It has been made more like a musical, with dialogue, some dancing, and was shortened by at least an hour and a half.

Gershwin’s music is extraordinary, a blend of jazz, European opera, African-American music, Jewish music. Gershwin was incredibly prolific and wrote music for quite a few musicals (several of which Fred Astaire and his sister Adele starred in), several movies in the 30s and several classical works like his famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” His brother, Ira, always wrote his lyrics for him. Tragically, George Gershwin died young, in 1937, of a brain tumor and his brother never quite recovered. Ira provided the lyrics for several more movies (such as Cover Girl and A Star is Born, collaborating with Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, respectively) but his heart was never truly in it.

The story of Porgy and Bess is fairly straightforward: about the inhabitants of Catfish Row, a small community in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1930s. Porgy is a crippled peddler and Bess is the former girlfriend of the local bully, Crown, who finds love and peace with Porgy and a degree of acceptance in the community. I can’t judge what the original opera was like, but the 2011 adaptation is part romance (and a very touching romance), but really is about the community, living through loss, a hurricane, hostile police, drug addiction (especially in Bess’ case) and still managing to find joy in life.

Catfish Row is interesting, because in a way, they administer their own justice. The police only pop in when something serious has occurred – like a murder – and questions people, but they don’t seem to be providing any real order, safety or justice. That is left for the community, which creates an “us versus them” mentality.

I was very impressed with the actors who played Porgy and Bess and the duets they sing together were lovely, such as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” “Summertime” is always a standout and the character of Sportin’ Life (who sells drugs) sings his famous song “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I do agree with one review I read that the dances (which I believe were not in the original 1935 version) were fun, but not quite as knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark wonderful to make it a great enhancement to the show – I was left faintly wishing for more.

Unfortunately, I had to catch a ferry – if I missed it I would have to wait an hour and a half for the next ferry, past midnight – so I had to rush out during the last scene, and I don’t quite know how it ends. My loss! My understanding is that it is very inspiring, with Porgy leaving for New York to find his Bess.

Many of the songs have become jazz standards, sung in a much lower register. The most famous is “Summertime.” Below is Leontyne Price’s version – she was an opera singer, who also played Bess, I believe, at some point – and then next is Sarah Vaughan’s version – a jazz singer, also known as The Divine Sarah Vaughan. Both versions are simply gorgeous.

 

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2014 in Musicals

 

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I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story – Marni Nixon

With Stephen Cole

Part Book Review and Part Tribute to A Great Singer

I’ve often read of Marni Nixon described as “The Ghostess with the Mostest,” a phrase which came from Time magazine. It’s very appropriate; though Marni Nixon is much more than a ghost singer for famous Hollywood stars.

Though you have to admit that as a ghost singer, there’s no one quite like her. Most famously, she dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed Natalie Woods (and Rita Moreno for the one song “Tonight”) in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in both The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She was the singing voice of Grandma Fa in Mulan. When Margaret O’Brien had to sing a short Hindu song in the 1949 The Secret Garden, they got Marni Nixon (she was seventeen at the time and it was her first job dubbing for anyone). She was all three geese who sing during the chalk picture interlude “Jolly Holiday” in Mary Poppins. And if you happen to notice that Marilyn Monroe hits some unusually lovely high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that is because those notes belonged to Nixon.

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Marni Nixon, singing a trio with herself in Mary Poppins

Marni Nixon was not a huge star, like Julie Andrews, but it was fascinating to read her autobiography I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story (2006). She seems to have done nearly everything there is to do in musical entertainment (and even non-musical entertainment) and there’s scarcely a medium she didn’t try (stage, film, radio, television, recordings; she was a dialect coach and teacher), and in the process she encountered many diverse people. It’s a wonderful look at the performance world: the stars, the composers, the music directors, the actors, the directors, agents, musicians, the writers. One comes away from the book with a wonderful sense what a lifetime of work is like – not as abstract art or glamorous jobs – but what it really means, in all its glamorous and un-glamours aspects to

She is quite honest and open in her book, about her personal life (like her nineteen year marriage to the composer Ernest Gold, who wrote the scores for Exodus and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World), her choices, her disappointments and her successes and triumphs. She started young, as a child. While participating in choral works, concerts and shows, she also worked as an extra in movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, In the Good Old Summertime.

As an adult she did everything from working with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to recording television jingles. She sang in operas, did a tour with Victor Borge ( pianist and comedian) and with Liberace in Las Vegas. She did musicals, playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Anna Leonowens on stage. She had a solo career and recorded several albums (for example, Disney asked her to record an album of the songs from Mary Poppins) and also appeared on the radio. Also, look for her, in person, as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.

She had a beautiful soprano voice; very clear and bright, and she had perfect pitch, even as a child. Conductors would tell her to sing an A and would tune according to that. She could sight read nearly any piece of music, including difficult modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and this ability led her into circles where she met and recorded for Igor Stravinsky.

Of course, it’s for her ghosting that she is most remembered and nowhere is there a better example than in The King and I. Unlike with Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, who both desperately wanted to sing on their own and took lessons while preparing to film (though studio heads were ultimately unwilling to allow them to sing) Deborah Kerr knew that she could not sing the role of Anna Leonowens.

She and Marni Nixon worked very closely together to blend their sound. Marni Nixon would shadow Deborah Kerr while she was blocking out how each song would be choreographed, even imitating hand motions, to try and get inside the character. Marni Nixon also worked very hard to match her voice to the timbre and accent of Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice (Nixon’s various accents in films include proper British, Cockney, Hispanic, and Irish – as well as a song sung in Hindi). They wanted to know exactly how Deborah Kerr was going to act the song, so Marni Nixon could record it to match.

The most brilliant example of their work together can be heard in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” which was cut from the movie, though the song can still be heard on the soundtrack. The song alternates between full out singing and talking on pitch and Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon rehearsed the song over and over again until they could record it, each in separate recording booths. Deborah Kerr started it off, then pointed at Marni Nixon, who would sing the more sustained parts, then point back at Kerr, who would take over the more talking parts; and they did this back and forth for the entire song. (Note: I can’t show the video on this site, but you should definitely watch it, here; which shows when Deborah Kerr is talking/singing and when Marni Nixon is singing).

Sadly, on all three of the top selling albums, The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, Marni Nixon’s name was nowhere to be seen (even though her singing made up more than half the music) and she had to fight to earn any royalties at all from West Side Story and My Fair Lady and received none for The King and I.

In all, I Could Have Sung All Night was a very engaging book and I enjoyed learning about her life. She always seemed to be expanding, trying new things, taking opportunities, working to improve her art. She had a remarkable and utterly unique career that was a pleasure to read about.

Notes: for an excellent article about how Marni Nixon went about her work dubbing the singers, see this one in The Guardian, “Standing in for the stars – the art of dubbing singers”. She also makes several spot-on observations about how, in recent movies (like Les Miserables), there has been a dramatic shift from the extreme of the excessive use of dubbing (without credit) to no use of any vocal help for the actors, when they really could use some help. I couldn’t agree with her more on that.

Below, is the clip of Margaret O’Brien, “singing” a Hindu lullaby to her cousin, Colin. MGM had brought in an Indian swami to teach Marni Nixon how to sing the words properly.

Click here for an interview with Marni Nixon, about her dubbing and how the studios attempted to keep it a secret that their stars were not actually doing their own singing, about how the stars felt about her dubbing their voices, and more about how she went about her dubbing work. And it is lovely to finally see her in person and hear her own speaking voice.

If you’re curious what Audrey Hepburn sounded like in My Fair Lady, click to hear the clip of her, in her own voice, singing “Show Me.”

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books, Musicals

 

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