May 14, 2007

Off to see the Wizard

I had a good idea for a post over the weekend. I still have it; I sat down to write it last night and ended up spending the entire evening surfing for Harold Arlen songs. Well, that's a good idea for a post, too.

Here's a 1950s Arlen song, "I Never Has Seen Snow," from a criminally obscure Broadway show called House of Flowers that he co-wrote with a young Truman Capote. (This is from a Boston Pops telecast; even if you're not a Vanessa Williams fan, Martha Babcock's cello solo makes it all worthwhile.)

My favorite Arlen songs are the blues- and gospel-flavored numbers he primarily produced with lyricists Ted Koehler and Johnny Mercer. Arlen and Mercer penned a drawerful of gems for a World War II cinematic revue called Star-Spangled Rhythm—the only one to achieve standard status was "That Old Black Magic" (choreographed for the film by George Balanchine; Hollywood used to be a classy place), but some more military-themed songs are priceless, including the brilliant "I'm Doing It For Defense" and the deliciously-titled "He Loved Me Till the All Clear Came." Here's a clip from the movie: sit through 30 seconds of clumsy framing story featuring a Preston Sturges cameo, and you'll be rewarded with Dick Powell and Mary Martin easing their way through "Hit the Road to Dreamland." Those singing waiters? That's the one-and-only Golden Gate Quartet, one of the greatest gospel groups of all time.

Arlen and Koehler achieved immortality with "Stormy Weather," one of dozens of songs they wrote throughout the 30s for such revues as the Cotton Club Parade and Earl Carroll's Vanities. "When the Sun Comes Out" dates from 1940, and it's a beauty. The late, great Barbara McNair just plain sings the hell out of it.

Arlen is a composer I didn't really appreciate until I started accompanying musical theater students. I think you have to physically get your hands on the music before you discover how creative and audacious he is—he's constantly toying with odd phrase lengths, tricky polyrhythmic syncopations, and slippery harmonies that you don't notice as a listener because his feel for the overall style is so suave. That might be why, even though so much of his musical vocabulary is immediately recognizable, he never had as high a profile as some of his more publicly celebrated colleagues. The more I get to know the songs, though, the more I'm convinced that he and Gershwin are in a class by themselves.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for sharing the spoils of your surfing. It's always a pleasure to hear Martha Babcock play. I would like to hear an "unstylized" version of the song though. Much of what seems to make this performance successful is Rob Mathes' arrangement and Martha Babcock's cello playing, and, if you like that sort of thing, the "vocal stylings" of Williams.