Friday, December 13, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 3)

Dear Muse,

By the time WWII was over, the Andrews Sisters had left a remarkable impact on the American public. Rallying America's positive national spirit had given them a great boost in popularity, making them one of the most beloved girl groups in history.

At war's end and beyond, the Andrews Sisters expanded their outreach, collaborating with other singers and other big names to spread cheer across the nation. While Americans knew them well enough to distinguish them individually (Patty, the youngest and most fun-loving; Maxene, the prettiest; and LaVerne, the eldest and most serious), they were unanimously loved as a group. And, despite personal clashes, the three sisters continued to delight audiences as a group well into the 1950s and '60s.

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 3)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Beyond the war

While Patty, Maxene and LaVerne scored their biggest hits during the Depression and war years, the end of the war demonstrated that their success was far from over. The Girls had already established their positive identity in the music world and positive ability to leave people feeling good. Now all they needed to do was continue their chain of success.

So they did. They kept on making hits like "Pennsylvania Polka" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," joining their name with entertainers like Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey. They kept singing with an energy that was so empowering that Disc highlighted it in 1946: 

The Andrews Sisters have managed to pick up a potent style of delivery that wows the listeners – sends every tune they warble sliding right into the groove. What makes these three jukebox royalty is fundamentally their own. They have a zest, a kind of earthy gusto that gets under the skin of John Doe or GI Joe, makes him relax and feel good. The girls like to sing, like the people they’re singing to, and that genuineness gets across. (qtd. in Sforza, Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story 71. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

But their fame didn't stop there. By the end of their career, they had starred in more Hollywood films than any other singing group in motion picture history; made 113 charted Billboard hits; and sold between 75-100 million records. (See Wikipedia for further details.)

Heck, they even worked with Disney, providing the musical narrative for the shorts "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet" (Make Mine Music) and "Little Toot" (Melody Time). Say what you want: being affiliated with Disney is HUGE for musical pop stars. (And speaking of "Johnny Fedora," check out this article comparing it to Pixar's pre-Monsters University short, "The Blue Umbrella." Personally, I think "The Blue Umbrella" is a total ripoff of "Johnny Fedora." Besides, "Johnny Fedora" is so much better with the Andrews Sisters narrating. 'Nuff said.) You can check out the first short in the Youtube video below and the second short here.

But while I can argue that the Andrews Sisters' career was very successful, I cannot claim that their lives were perfect. Although picture-perfect to their fans, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne had a turbulent relationship behind the scenes. During the 1950s and '60s, they went through several break-ups and reunions. Personally, I feel that the break-ups were mainly Patty's fault. Being the lead singer, she felt she deserved more money than either of her sisters, and broke off in 1951 to pursue a solo career (without telling them, might I add). In short, she effectively caused an estrangement between her, Maxene and LaVerne.

Nevertheless, in spite of Patty's selfishness, the Girls realized how important it was to keep the group together. The Andrews Sisters continued as a duo through the 1950s, with the members changing when Patty rejoined the group in 1956 and LaVerne died in 1967. Despite how petty the sisters could be at times, I respect them for being able to set their personal problems aside out of respect for their fans. They knew fans needed cheerful inspiration from their beloved girl group. So, being professionals, they put their listeners first and gave them the cheeriness they were hoping to hear.

All in all, the Andrews Sisters' perseverance and giving spirit was like nothing any other celebrity has demonstrated in history. Sure, there have been philanthropists in the celebrity lineup - but none that made so much effort to be there for so many people. Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were there for those who needed them in the roughest times of the '30s and '40s, and they continued to be there for people who relied on their optimism to help them get through the post-war years.

Essentially, the Andrews Sisters were a group America needed to progress. They were important factors in America's ultimate victory against the Axis Powers, and they were important cultural icons in the years following. For that reason - for the lasting impact they made on American culture - it is crucial for people to remember them today. I hope that this fascinating trio will never be truly forgotten. And, as long as there are people like me who keep humming "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" from time to time, there is a good chance that the Andrews Sisters' shining name will never completely fade.

To conclude, here are the last few of their songs I'd like to share with you.

1. "Pennsylvania Polka" (Hits of '42)

When I hear this song, I always think of one of those big-band dance halls from the '40s, like the ones you see in Radio Days. You can practically hear the Andrews Sisters dancing as they sing to the big-band swing. At least Patty sounds like she's having fun.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

2. "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" (The Song Is...Harold Arlen)

This popular song from 1945 peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Although it's considered a prominent Bing Crosby song (since he's leading), the Girls provide a really rollicking backup. It's one of the most enjoyable songs they ever did, so it's definitely worth concluding their story with.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

P.S.  By the way, something coincidentally wonderful and related to the Andrews Sisters happened over Thanksgiving Break! While I was flying to California and mulling over revisions for my blog posts, I happened to sit next to one of the Directors at the History Theatre in Minneapolis. He informed me that the Theatre is showing an Andrews Sisters musical this next month, based on their life - which is just what I happened to be writing about!! He even gave me a 2-for-1 coupon so that I could bring a friend to the show at a discount!! It's the most amazing stroke of luck ever!!

Unfortunately, I won't be able to bring Siena or DivaStar (who I know would especially appreciate the music). But I'll find someone. I can't to wait to watch the show and then write a review about it!

Until next time,

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 2)

Dear Muse,

The Andrews Sisters had gotten off to a great start with "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" and their following hits. But as WWII broke out, the Girls really came into their own. If Americans had needed the Girls during the Depression, they needed them even more now. With anxious audiences hanging on their every note, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne knew exactly what they had to do.

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 2)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Send them off with a smile and a song

As Americans at home went into overdrive to support their fighting troops abroad, so did the Andrews Sisters. If "we're all in this together" had to be the dominant mantra, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne did their best to boost enthusiasm for that mantra anywhere and everywhere. They broadened their venues to army camps, naval bases, USO centers, munitions factories and hospitals, often performing as many as 6 shows a day. At the height of WWII, they knew that GI Joes needed relief just as much as the average American civilian. 

Maxene recalled of the war years: 

If there was a dark side to those trying years, there was a bright side, too – a sense of national unity, real togetherness, a feeling so strong, so exhilarating and so unifying that it did more than help the country to survive. It helped us to win the war. The Andrews Sisters were right in the thick of all this, for the same reasons that millions of other entertainers were – because we wanted to be. We wanted to visit every USO club and military base and GI hospital we could find, both in the states and overseas. If we were on tour doing four and five shows a day, seven days a week, fifty weeks each year in cities all across the United States, we still found time to visit the service-men and –women. And when Patty, LaVerne and I went overseas for the USO, we often added four or five impromptu shows to our schedule every day, for any two or three soldiers who might ask us. (qtd. in Sforza, Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story 13. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

The enthusiasm the Andrews Sisters shared with their audiences made them (unsurprisingly) even bigger stars than before. GIs liked their songs so much that they started naming fighter planes and bombers after the titles. Officials demanded their presence at military departures. Even Hollywood took a keen interest in them, signing them on to perform in propaganda films like Buck Privates (1941) and Private Buckaroo (1942). Fans clamored for a spot in theaters to watch them. With a place on the stage, radio and big screen, the Girls were at the peak of their popularity. 

In time, the Girls came to represent more than a cheery girl group: they represented America's positive national spirit during WWII. As writer William Ruhlmann observed:

If, after half a century, we still cannot think of the Andrews Sisters without remembering World War II, it may be because they continue to embody the positive national spirit called forth during that time. […] Just as a common enemy forced Americans to think of themselves as a unified whole, their pop music brought them together. It served to relieve them for a moment and renew them for the continuing struggle. (qtd. in Sforza 13-14)

That said, here are some of the songs that rallied American troops in those troubled times. 

1. "The Woodpecker Song" (Hits of '40)

This is a fun song for kids; as bird-themed songs go, I personally find it catchier than "Rockin' Robin." Originally Italian.

2. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" (Songs That Got Us Through WWII)

Even though I previously included this in my WWII Week! (part 2) post, it's worth mentioning here, since it's one of the iconic hits of WWII. It was first introduced in the 1941 Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates, and is usually the first song that comes to mind when anyone thinks of the Andrews Sisters. Also, if you listen closely, you'll find that it sounds very similar to "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" (see previous post). 

3. "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" (Hits of '42)

And NOW, the song you've all been waiting for!! "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was a key song for the Andrews Sisters. On one hand, it showed what entertaining performers they were - as the video clip from Private Buckaroo demonstrates.

On the other hand, while the song brought people together, it also brought bittersweet feelings with it. Maxene described one of the most memorable scenes associated with this song:

We went down to the docks during an appearance in Seattle and sang for the boys as their ship pulled away into the Pacific, headed for combat. At the request of military officials supervising the departure, we sang, " 'Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.' The scene is still vivid in my memory. We stood down on the pier, looking up at all those young men leaning over the ship’s rails, waving and yelling and screaming. Any time that scene was reenacted, and it was happening countless times every day in groups large and small all over the country in 1942, one thought nagged at you: How many of the young men shipping out wouldn’t come back? I can still see the mothers and sweethearts standing on that dock and singing along with us as the ship sailed away to war. (qtd. in Sforza 85-86)  

Next time: the end of war.


P.S. Although I included a video of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," I'm including an MP3 attachment as well if you just want to listen to the song.

*Photos courtesy of John Sforza, unless otherwise cited.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Dear Muse,

Some time ago, my cousin Siena expressed an interest in the Andrews Sisters.

Since this comes from a girl whose interests range from k.d. lang to Gregorian bell chants, I responded thus:

Still, I'm glad she brought it up, because the Andrews Sisters are well worth remembering. (And seeing how almost nobody I know today does remember them, it's even more critical that I pay homage to them here.) This upcoming trio of posts will be focused on the time the musical trio made their BIGGEST hits: the late '30s through mid-'40s. (Of course they kept performing for decades after, but their most beloved songs came from this particular era.) And, although the posts are for everyone to read, I will begin with this statement:

"Dedicated (with deepest affection) to Siena, whose tastes are sometimes even more eclectic than mine." 

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

A bright beginning

You can't think of the Andrews Sisters today without remembering hits like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." Nor can you think of them without remembering WWII. In those dark and desperate years, "the Girls" - Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne - became symbols of hope. Their mellifluous melodies and infectious enthusiasm buoyed GIs and radio-listeners alike, encouraging them to continue their struggle against the Axis Powers. Thanks to their music, the Andrews Sisters became one of the best-loved "girl groups" in history.

But what made the Andrews Sisters so unique? After all, it's not like they were the only girl group of the swingin' thirties and forties - the Boswell SistersPickens Sisters, Barry Sisters, King Sisters and Dinning Sisters were also competing for fame. What did Patty, Maxene and LaVerne have to make them stand out from the rest?

One theory is their versatility. According to John Sforza, author of Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story, the Andrews Sisters' success could easily be explained by how masterfully they managed different tunes:

...the trio had major hits with nearly all types of music, and they handled different rhythms with ease. They sang swing, boogie-woogie, eight-to-the-bar, country-western, folk, calypso, ragtime, blues, ballads, inspirational, gospel, seasonal favorites, and a host of songs derived from or based upon Yiddish, Italian, Irish, French, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Brazilian, and Mexican melodies. (Swing It! 11. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

Another theory is their "cohesive harmony and perfectly timed vocal syncopations" (29-30), as well as their "more modern and conventional style" (30). Still, I personally think that what set the Andrews Sisters apart was their cheeriness. 

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

No matter what song they were singing, the Girls radiated cheeriness to the utmost. Every song they touched turned happy. As Sforza put it, "there was an innate desire instilled in all three sisters to please their audiences, to be happy and to inspire happiness through their music" (13). Not only did they try to sound optimistic all the time, they also did their best to make others feel optimistic too. Under the Andrews Sisters' magic touch, the saddest ballads became bright melodies. Under their influence, tragedy was resolved and hope restored. 

While humorist James Thurber mocked "Andrews' Ready Relief" for spreading unnecessary sunshine in intentionally tragic songs (see his chapter "Take Her Up Tenderly" from Thurber Country), the rest of the country didn't mind. With a Great Depression going on, Americans liked a girl group that could cheer them up. As it turned out, the new sound of "Andrews' Ready Relief" was just what America needed at the time. That cheeriness was what cast the trio into the spotlight and kept them there until America's entry into WWII. 

And now for the songs themselves! To begin with, here are several of the Andrews Sisters' first great hits, including the song that started it all: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön."

(Although the songs in this set of posts are mostly from the Andrews Sisters' Top 30 Hits, I may not include all the hits that you might associate with the Girls. The following songs are just the ones I like best.)

1. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (Hits of '37)

Until 1937, the Girls had tried their talents in vaudeville shows with little success. Their former lack of success made the surprise even greater when "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" became an overnight smash hit. As Sforza observed, the song "took the girls from vaudeville obscurity and rocketed them to stardom" (29). The song is a translated Yiddish tune, meaning "To Me, You Are Beautiful." It's a great example of how versatile Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were.


2. "Oh Ma-Ma" (Hits of '38)

This is a fun little ditty - a bit catty, very like gossipy sisters (which is kind of fitting for this trio). Italian this time. 

3. "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" (Hits of '40)

By 1940, the Andrews Sisters had tried many different music forms, from swing to boogie-woogie. Now, they introduced a new form to the public: eight-to-the-bar. Leonard Maltin described their landmark recording in these terms:

‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’ was a reflection of the growing popularity in jazz circles of boogie-woogie music. But no one had yet turned this piano phenomenon […] into a vehicle for a popular song, or even thought about adding lyrics to the rolling rhythm of boogie. ‘Beat Me Daddy’ was such a hit that it launched a tidal wave of boogie songs, many of which the girls recorded. (qtd. in Sforza, 12)

More to come tomorrow! Next we'll get into the trio's wartime hits.


*Photos courtesy of John Sforza, unless otherwise cited.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

3 Creepy Selections of Halloween Music

Dear Muse,

Every year around Halloween, you can expect to hear these familiar favorites: Danse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, Nightmare Before Christmas songs, Michael Jackson's Thriller, etc. They're all fitting choices for the holiday, and anything with a Vincent Price monologue is good for a few shivers here and there.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

But, these pieces have become pretty routine. There are three others that I don't hear often enough at this time of year, even though I think they're just as good - or better - at making people jittery after dark. (At least, that's how they affect me.) Thus, here are my three ideas for additional Halloween music to listen to. (And if it turns out that these are actually quite common Halloween tunes, or are nothing new and exciting for your ears, I still would highlight them because they creep me out the most.... or make me want to creep under the bed.)

3 Creepy Selections of Halloween Music 

  1. "Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat" (Tchaikovsky)
Yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: "Classical cat music?!? I mean, if it was about black cats, that would be one thing - but what's scary about Puss-in-Boots?!?"

Well... do you remember the scene in Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty when Maleficent bewitches Princess Aurora to touch the spinning wheel? The animation was creepy enough, but as a kid I was far more freaked out by the music accompanying it. That music was "Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat," from Act III of Tchaikovsky's 1889 ballet The Sleeping Beauty.  

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Coincidentally, this piece was not part of any scary scene in Tchaikovsky's ballet; it actually was part of the happy ending. At the wedding of Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, fairytale characters perform dances - Pas de caractère/Pas de quatre - to celebrate the royal union. While the dance of Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat was not intended to be frightening in Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty adaptation, Disney used it to great effect in the Scary Spindle scene. Its haunting strains still echo in my memory today. 

2.  Any of the Harry Potter soundtracks (from the first two movies) involving Voldemort, the Forbidden Forest, the Chamber of Secrets, wandering the halls at night, or anything else ominous (Williams). 

                                                                Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

OK, I know this is kind of cheating, since it isn't one specific piece of music. But these soundtracks combined represent "Eerie Harry Potter music." They're all hair-raising in different ways, mainly because they all serve as buildup to the reveal of something scary. 

What do I mean by this? Think of the library scene in the first movie: the buildup of ghostly chamber music enhances the ominous atmosphere and creepy imagery (like Harry's disembodied hand carrying a lantern through the dark) and adds to viewers' unease before the actual shock of the screaming book happens. It is scenes like this one where Williams' music excels in stimulating deep-seated fear.  

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Sorceror's Stone and Chamber of Secrets have many more scary scenes than the other movies in the series do, simply because the music adds to their overall suspense and mystery. Scenes with Voldemort/Quirrel in the Forbidden Forest, Knockturn Alley, bloody messages etched on the walls, spiders scuttling through the passages, or Harry's journey to the Chamber of Secrets are frightening mainly because the music creates such good suspense. It makes the viewer that much more receptive - and the payoff much more striking - when the scary whatever-it-is materializes on screen. It's why I could be more afraid of Voldemort in Sorceror's Stone and Chamber of Secrets than of the later Voldemort or even the dementors; more than any other Harry Potter soundtrack, the first two movies' soundtracks foreshadowed Voldemort as a terrifying and ghastly figure before I even saw his face. For that reason, when he finally revealed himself to Harry, he was just as awful as the music suggested.  

Thus, I say kudos to Williams: more than any other composer, he knew how to make Harry Potter legitimately unnerving.  

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

3.  Fifth Movement of Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14: "Songe d'une nuit de sabbat"/ "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath" (Berlioz)

This piece I saved for last, because it is the closing movement of Berlioz' dramatic Symphonie Fantastique. According to Michael Austin's translation, the 1855 version of the symphony can be summarized as follows: 

 A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere. (see Programme of the symphony)

Over the course of the symphony's five movements, the young musician has five different dreams (see translation for further detail). After being beheaded in the Fourth Movement, he awakens in the Fifth Movement at a witches' sabbath - or in the underworld - to behold a score of demons who have amassed for his funeral. As the music builds to its climax, his beloved is revealed to be at the head of the procession.... and then he awakens from his nightmare.  

"Songe d'une nuit de sabbat" is truly unique in its eeriness. Its sweeping crescendoes and crashing notes make me jump with their suddenness, its bell dirges pierce the movement with gloom, and its skittering strings and sonorous brass animate every ghoulish and batlike beast that can be conjured by the imagination. Berlioz' Fifth Movement masters the art of interchanging grand with grotesque; funereal with demonic; lugubrious with gleeful. It sums up all the best musical elements of the supernatural, leaving a deeper impact on my memory than any other piece of Halloween music ever composed. In my personal opinion, this makes it the creepiest selection of Halloween music I have ever heard. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Best Kind of Song

Dear Muse,

Do you know what the best kind of song is? I'll tell you: the BEST kind of song is a song with an ABA pattern that echoes another song in its B section. This type of song is typically found near the end of a musical. (I know, go figure. But I'm on a roll with showtunes stuff for the moment, so I might as well keep it rolling.)

The reason I like this type of song is because it's like a bonus deal: you get two songs for the price of one. Often the tune that's echoed in the B section of the best kind of song is (on its own) too monotonous, too brassy or too-something for you to want to listen to the whole thing. But when it's a snippet inside another song, the too-something song comes across as a refresher rather than a headache. The snippet-song is brief enough to enjoy, but not so long as to distract you from the song that encompasses it.

The best kind of song can represent many things, depending on what its B section echoes and what role it plays in the musical's plot. It can be an angry, bitter mockery of a character's earlier, more optimistic song (as in "See What It Gets You" from Anyone Can Whistle).

It can be an extra note of hope, reminding the audience of the characters' promising future and rounding out a blossomy love song (as in "Yesterday I Loved You" from Once Upon a Mattress).

 It can be an ironic indication of waning romance as a character moves beyond their relationship (as in "An Orthodox Fool" from No Strings).

Or it can be a recollection of an antagonized character's battle cry, reminding them why they fight against injustice and hardening their resolve (as in "When I Grow Up" from Matilda). Whatever the case may be, the B section of the best kind of song makes the entire thing more profound, more mellifluous, and more captivating.

To get a better idea of what I mean, listen to some of the songs I mentioned (attachments below). Then see if you can guess the name of the tune echoed in each B section!

                                                                                   'Till next time,

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Interracial Romance We Forgot

Dear Muse,

From childhood on, we've been exposed to some pretty big musical duos: Gilbert & Sullivan, Simon & Garfunkel, Lennon & McCartney... and of course, Rodgers & Hart / Rodgers & Hammerstein. Anyone who knows "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" or "The Lady is a Tramp" knows Rodgers & Hart. And due to our culture's influx of songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! and The King and I, even more people have had Rodgers & Hammerstein ingrained into their subconscious.

But what do we know of Richard Rodgers alone? Not much, that's for sure. Most of what we know about him involves his collaboration with either Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein II. Still, Rodgers did create a musical - his only solo project after Hammerstein's death in 1960 - with no collaborators whatsoever. That musical? No Strings

No Strings is a 1962 musical about fashion model Barbara Woodruff and expatriate novelist David Jordan who have a love affair in Paris. Woodruff and Jordan were played by Diahann Carroll (of Julia and Dynasty fame) and Richard Kiley (the original Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha), respectively.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

The plot plays into the double meaning of the show's title, which  is called "No Strings" because:
  1. the couple parts ways at the end with "no strings attached," and
  2. the orchestration is done completely without stringed instruments.
Nowhere does this double meaning shine out more than in the opening (and closing) song, "The Sweetest Sounds." Here's how the No Strings blurb from Broadway: The American Musical describes it:

In this haunting opening number, Rodgers had the couple sitting on opposite sides of the stage, and the song appeared to conjure up a love affair between two lonely people (and, in a neat irony, its reprise at the final curtain suggested the whole story was simply a wistful daydream). (25)

Whenever I hear "The Sweetest Sounds," I imagine the opening scene roughly like this:

I'll admit that my picture doesn't do justice to this beautiful song. But I totally agree with whoever wrote that blurb - "The Sweetest Sounds" is haunting.

Although the irony of the story/ orchestration is all well and good, the interracial romance especially intrigues me. You don't see many musicals nowadays focused on interracial romances. (Except for West Side StoryOnce On This Island, and Memphis... but that's still not a lot.)

It's interesting to note that neither Samuel A. Taylor's book nor Rodgers' score specifically mentioned race, and the only indication Woodruff provides of being African-American is her reference to growing up around Harlem (see Background in No Strings wikipedia article). The two leads could have been cast with same-race actors and it wouldn't affect the story at all. Nevertheless, Carroll's casting and the characters' reluctance to discuss race made the show "socially progressive" and pretty controversial. (That, and it took place around the start of the Civil Rights movement.)

But with all this in mind, all I can think is, "why wasn't there a revival of this show?" It has good songs. It has an excellent cast. It has some really amusing social commentary. It has music by Richard Rodgers, for crying out loud!! Plus, it's different from most romantic musicals, because the two lovers don't end up together and live happily ever after. Wouldn't that make it unique enough to justify revival? WHY would it just run for over a year, and then sputter out of public consciousness? WHY haven't theater companies made an effort to bring it back?!? It wouldn't be that controversial by today's standards, so I think theater-goers could enjoy it.

In fact, reviving No Strings would be worthwhile just to see how differently people today would react to the interracial stuff, compared with audiences in 1962. Given how much progress we've made in the spheres of race, women's rights and LGBTQ rights, I think today's somewhat-more-tolerant American public would appreciate No Strings a lot more.

Until a No Strings revival graces the stage again, however, here are several songs you can enjoy. Some are beautiful, some are funny, some are wistful, and all are moving. Have a listen - you won't regret it.

                                                                        'Till next time,

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Promises, Promises: Take Two

Dear Muse,

Maybe I was too hasty when I said that Promises, Promises didn't give me much to write about. Due to a recent re-listening which opened my eyes (and ears) to some dazzling songs, I have had a change of heart. So, without further ado, here's "Promises, Promises: Take Two."

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

To be honest, I make a lot of hasty judgments when I listen to music for the first time. If it doesn't immediately wow me, I decide there's not much to it and dismiss it from my mind. Sometimes, though, I wait a while and then give it a second chance to see if I missed something. In Promises, Promises' case, giving it a second chance proved that I had missed a LOT. About a third of the songs were real zingers. As to why, well... I'll get to that later.

Before we talk about Promises, Promises, however, we'll need to talk about what it's adapted from. Like Applause (see March posts), this show is a musical retelling of a classic film noir: Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

The Apartment is a complicated sort of How to Succeed in Business-tale, albeit sweeter, warmer, and funnier. A lonely office drudge named C.C. Baxter ("Chuck"in the musical) works at a national insurance corporation and lives in an apartment. In exchange for letting his managers borrow his apartment for their extramarital affairs, Baxter receives glowing recommendations from them, allowing him to climb the corporate ladder. Eventually, the director (Sheldrake) hears about it and convinces Baxter to let him use the apartment for himself so that he can continue an extramarital affair with an old fling, Fran Kubelik - who also happens to be Baxter's crush. (In the movie, she's an elevator operator; in the musical, she's a waitress at the company cafeteria.)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Upon learning that Sheldrake has been lying to her, Ms. Kubelik attempts suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills at Baxter's apartment. Baxter rescues her from death and, while he nurses her back to health, the two fall in love. Eventually, his love for Ms. Kubelik enables him to grow a backbone and walk out on his corrupt supervisors once and for all.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Now for a few words on the adaptation, Promises, Promises. My liking for the musical is kind of weird, because it's divided between the original 1968 version (starring Jerry Orbach and Jill O'Hara) and the 2010-11 revival (starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth). While I vastly prefer Orbach as Chuck Baxter, I prefer Kristin Chenoweth as Fran. (Come on, it's Galinda from Wicked!! Who wouldn't love her as Fran?!?) Hayes can't hold a candle to Orbach's performance. As for O'Hara, she sounds like she's singing through laryngitis compared to Chenoweth. The reason I love songs like "Half as Big as Life" and "Knowing When to Leave" is because Orbach and Chenoweth (respectively) make those songs.

Fortunately, no one better understands my obsession with this sort of thing than my friend DivaStar. A fellow choir member and showtunes nerd, she's one of the only people I know with whom I can have meaningful discussions about various musicals in which neither person gets bored. (It probably helps that she's acted in several musicals herself.)

Also, since DivaStar likes a lot of "brightly-colored" musicals (e.g., musicals that are loud and showy, like How to Succeed in Business, Newsies, Phantom of the Opera, etc.), discussing the bombastic Promises, Promises with her was a lot of fun. Especially the parts we agreed on. For example, I introduced this idea to her the other day:

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Although she isn't as familiar with Promises, Promises as I am, we both agreed that Orbach + Chenoweth would make for a MUCH improved show overall.

But perhaps YOU should decide about Promises, Promises for yourself. Check out some of the songs I've attached in music players below, and see what you think. ("I'll Never Fall in Love Again" does involve Jill O'Hara from the original cast, but since it's the only song I think she sounds decent in, I've included it here.)

                                                                             'Till next time,

P.S. Also, I was a bit hasty in judging Jerry Orbach before I heard this musical. I'll admit, I didn't like him in The Fantasticks. But now that I've experienced Promises, Promises, I think he's thrilling.