Oklahomans are justifiably proud fact that their state song hails from a landmark 1943 American musical. And while no other state can make that claim, numerous other states have also been memorialized in song. Nearly half of the 50 states have no musical theater connection at all, but for those that do, few can compare favorably to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
In fact, many states are spoken of disparagingly. Consider “I’m Tired of Texas,” a song from “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” that refers to the Lone Star State as being “the rear end of the USA.” Montana gets similar treatment in the musical “Whoop Up.” The lyric suggests that Montana is “one-third rock and two-thirds dust” and goes on to say that “you live here only if you must.” In 2005, the Sooner State found its way into “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a hit musical in which the singer poked fun at Oklahoma but also referred to it as “my little piece of heaven.”
Our neighbor Arkansas is unfortunately saddled with one of the musical theater’s most inane examples: a hokey two-step from the Huckleberry Finn-inspired “Big River.” Other states receive a mixture of praise and condemnation, including “Iowa Stubborn” from “The Music Man.” The townsfolk talk about their willingness to accept outsiders but then speak with pride about their “chip on the shoulder attitude.”
The Amish celebrate the bountiful fall harvest in “Plenty of Pennsylvania” (“Plain and Fancy”), while a boastful Richard Henry Lee tries to impress John Adams with the accomplishments of his venerable Virginia family in “The Lees of Old Virginia” (“1776″). In the Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings,” Maine gets a “Green Acres”-type number in which the romantic leads battle it out over where each prefers to live: he in rural Maine; she, north of Central Park in New York.
Texas can lay claim to a half-dozen show tunes, although neither “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It” nor “I’m Leavin’ Texas,” from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and its ill-fated sequel, do their state proud. New York has found its way into more than a dozen songs, most praising the joys of living there: “A Day in New York” (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), “You Can Be a New Yorker Too” (“Mayor”) and “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” (“Jennie”).
Several musical theater-related songs have impressive pedigrees thanks to the accomplishments of their composer/lyricists, from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Cactus Time in Arizona” to Irving Berlin’s “Louisiana Purchase.” And tuneful though they are, the songs “Gary, Indiana” (“The Music Man”), “Kansas City” (“Oklahoma!”), “Travelin’: In Louisiana” (“Sugar Babies”) and “New York, New York” (“On the Town”) can’t match “Oklahoma” for inspiration and sheer musical pleasure.
From “Little Mary Sunshine” and “Dames at Sea” to “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Urinetown,” the musical theater has taken great pleasure in poking fun at itself. Not surprisingly, countless other show titles have been subjected to considerable abuse, many of which perfectly sum up a show’s shortcomings. Here’s a sampling of a few ageless gems along with some newer classics.
Two musicals that failed to keep audiences engaged prompted the following: “The Red Shoes” was caustically nicknamed “The Red Snooze,” while “Nick and Nora” became known as “Nick and Snora.” In 1990, British pop star Michael Ball recreated his role as the amorous Alex Dillingham when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” transferred to Broadway. But the actor’s noticeable weight gain prompted many visitors to rename the show “Aspects of Love Handles.”
Some musicals never managed to find their audiences. The ill-conceived stage adaptation of James Clavell’s “Shogun” became known as “Show Gone” after its sudden demise, while the one-performance run of “Dance a Little Closer” was quickly dubbed “Close a Little Faster.” Ethel Merman, the legendary singer who created the role of Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” headed a celebrated revival two decades later. But at 57, Merman was considered by many to be too long in the tooth to play the celebrated sharpshooter. The 1966 revival was thereafter known as “Granny Get Your Gun.”
A regional production of the Irving Berlin classic featured a leading lady who was cast in spite of her rather large frame. That resulted in the production being called “Annie Weighs a Ton.” “Dreamgirls,” the six-time Tony Award winner from 1981, told a tale that closely resembled The Supremes’ rise to fame. But Jennifer Holliday’s powerhouse voice led many to call the show “Screamgirls.”
Even the legendary musical “Show Boat” has had its detractors. Based on Edna Ferber’s epic novel about three generations of theatrical performers who traveled the Mississippi, the musical has had to endure the titles “Slow Boat” and “Boat Show.” Frank Wildhorn’s “Jekyll & Hyde” recently returned to Broadway but the reviews for the 2013 revival were no kinder than those it received after its 1997 debut. In one production of this troubled musical, the leading man was a multi-personality kind of guy who also tended to be rather sarcastic. Some dubbed the show “Heckle & Jekyll & Hyde.”
It just proves that regardless of subject matter, star stature or the talents of the creative team, when it comes to humor in the musical theater, nothing is sacred.
Yesterday, I put together a list of prominent Hollywood actors who took a break from their film or television careers to star in a Broadway musical. Today, the women get their due. Curiously, each performer has made but a single appearance in a Broadway musical.
Lucille Ball, the lovable redhead who became a television icon with her sitcoms “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy Show,” played an Annie Oakley of the oil fields in the 1960 musical “Wildcat.” Celebrated for her big-screen appearances in “Gone With the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the winsome Vivien Leigh portrayed an exiled member of the Russian nobility in the now forgotten “Tovarich.”
In 1969, four-time Academy Award-winner Katherine Hepburn was enticed to portray the legendary couturier Coco Chanel in a musical bio written by Andre Previn and Alan J. Lerner. The show traced Chanel’s life from her impoverished beginnings to the leader of the fashion industry. Shelley Winters, an actress remembered for her roles in “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” played the Marx family matriarch in a failed 1970 musical titled “Minnie’s Boys.”
Although Bette Midler (“The Rose” and “Outrageous Fortune”) would ultimately divide her career between film and the concert stage, she briefly played Tzeitel in Broadway’s long-running hit “Fiddler on the Roof.” And Lillian Gish, who portrayed the daughter of an abolitionist leader in “The Birth of a Nation,” starred as the Dowager Empress of Russia in the 1965 musical “Anya.”
Baby boomers know Agnes Moorehead as Endora on the television sitcom “Bewitched,” but this imposing actress also appeared as Aunt Alicia in Lerner and Loewe’s 1973 stage adaptation of the musical “Gigi.” Although not primarily known for their screen roles, two performers deserve inclusion in this group: soprano Teresa Stratas took a sabbatical from the world of opera to star in “Rags,” a four-performance fiasco about the challenges faced by an immigrant family after their arrival in New York.
And Anna Maria Alberghetti, who appeared in the 1951 film “The Medium,” made her only Broadway musical appearance a decade later in “Carnival.” She won a Tony Award as Lili, the orphaned waif who joins the carnival and falls in love with a magician. Finally, there’s Rosalind Russell, the no-nonsense screen star remembered for her exuberance in “Auntie Mame” and “Gypsy.” Russell played Ruth Sherwood, a Midwestern girl trying to launch a literary career, in Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 stage musical “Wonderful Town.”
More recent examples include Allison Janney (“The West Wing”), who made her Broadway musical in the 2009 musical “9 to 5,” and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”), who made her Broadway debut the same year and won a Tony Award for her role in the revival of “A Little Night Music.” Jane Lynch (“Best in Show,” “Glee”) will take over the role of Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of “Annie” this week.
If most noted performers tend to become strongly identified with either Broadway or Hollywood, a few, including Celeste Holm, Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Streisand and Julie Andrews, have managed to transition back and forth with ease. Today, far more performers tend to leave the Great White Way for Tinseltown, although a few notable examples of the reverse can be cited, some of whom may surprise all but the most astute theatergoer.
While most of these Hollywood notables were primarily thought of as screen actors, all explored the world of the stage even though each appeared in only a single Broadway musical. Long before Andy Griffith became known as Mayberry’s easy-going sheriff, he played a similar character in the Broadway production of “Destry Rides Again.” Anthony Perkins starred as a man struck by wanderlust in 1960′s “Greenwillow,” the same year he created the role of the evil Norman Bates in “Psycho.”
Many will be surprised to learn that Jackie Gleason won a Tony Award for his role as Sid Davis in “Take Me Along,” yet never received an Emmy for portraying Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” Christopher Plummer, an award-winning stage actor whose career will forever be associated with “The Sound of Music,” earned a 1973 Tony Award for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac in the musical “Cyrano.”
Although Alan Alda has starred in numerous television series, he’ll forever be remembered for his role as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H.” But this versatile actor also appeared in the musical “The Apple Tree.” And two of the big screen’s finest stars each took a break from films to star in musicals written by the distinguished songwriting team of Lerner and Loewe. Rex Harrison earned a Tony and an Oscar for his role as the unyielding Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” while Richard Burton gave a princely performance as King Arthur in “Camelot.”
Other notable actors who dabbled in the Broadway musical include Jack Klugman (“The Odd Couple” and “Quincy, M.E.”) in “Gypsy,” Sid Caesar (“Your Show of Shows”) in “Little Me,” Vincent Price (“The Fly” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”) in “Darling of the Day,” Burgess Meredith (“Of Mice and Men” and “Batman”) in “Johnny Johnson,” and F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”) in the short-live musical “Triumph of Love.”
More recent examples include Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”), who appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” Sean Hayes (“Will and Grace”), who made his Broadway debut the same year in the revival of “Promises, Promises,” and Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”), who drew large crowds to watch him climb the corporate ladder in the 2011 revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Teachers of grammar have long cautioned against the overuse of the exclamation point, noting that if employed too frequently, it tends to lose its importance. Broadway hasn’t always taken heed, though, boasting nearly two dozen musicals with exclamation points. But just how many actually deserve this distinction? A look back through the decades reveals that some – “Red, Hot and Blue!” (1936), “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” (1948) and “Oh, Captain!” (1958) – failed to achieve substantial runs. With each running less than six months, the addition of an exclamation point to the title was perhaps ill advised.
An attempt to blend Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with the music of Duke Ellington likewise failed to excite audiences. “Play On!” (1997) did anything but what its title suggested. Conversely, “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1964) together amassed more than 5,000 performances and remain two of the most popular musical theater titles in the catalog. “Drat! The Cat!” (1965) and “I Do! I Do!” (1966) opted for two exclamation points in their titles, but only the latter, with 561 performances, seems to have benefited from the additional punctuation.
Off-Broadway’s “Snoopy!!!” added a third exclamation mark, yet only survived five months. And with an unremarkable three performances, “Oh, Brother!” (1981) holds the record for the shortest run in this category. “Fiorello!” (1959), a musical that chronicled the events in the life of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, remains the only Pulitzer Prize winner in this select group.
Other musicals that celebrated larger than life personalities include “George M!” (1968), a retrospective on the life of actor/songwriter George M. Cohan; and “Eubie!” (1978), a musical biography of pianist and songwriter Eubie Blake. This exclamation mark phenomenon isn’t restricted to the United States. England’s contributions have included “Oliver!” (1960, United States 1963) and “Oh, What a Lovely War!” (1963). South Africa introduced American audiences to “Sarafina!” (1988).
The trend of adding exclamation points to show titles apparently began in 1924 with “Lady, Be Good!” No decade since has failed to include at least one such musical, the most recent being “Baby It’s You” (2011), a jukebox musical that featured the music of the 1960s pop group The Shirelles. The show only ran four months before closing.
Adding punctuation to a show’s title may be a useful marketing tool, but as documented here, such obvious embellishments are often an attempt to compensate for shortcomings that will almost certainly undermine the musical’s success.
To many people, the initials SAS are synonymous with the Scandinavian air carrier. Musicians, however, tend to view those letters as a shorthand for “synthesis, analysis, synthesis.” It’s one of many learning styles used in the pedagogy of music. With this approach, a performer follows a logical progression of study that will ultimately lead to mastery and musical independence.
The first stage – synthesis – describes a performer’s initial exposure to a new work. Often referred to as sight-reading, this process provides an overview of a new composition, with clues about its musical period, style and complexity. This stage may also involve a comparison of the musical score with a recording, which allows the performer to grasp the work’s scope and architectural design. The novice may be tempted to make a determination about the work’s value at this point but it’s far too premature to make such claims.
From there, the real work begins: analysis. Details about melody, harmony, rhythm, form, style and mood are subject to scrutiny at this stage. Depending on the work’s complexity and length, as well as the performer’s degree of musicianship, this process can take weeks, months or even years to realize. One often hears tales of professional musicians who put off performing a work for a period of years because of the overwhelming responsibility involved.
Young concert violinists rarely program the Beethoven violin concerto, for example. Their concerns rarely have to do with technique but rather the ability to convey a compelling performance of a beloved masterwork. Knowing their performance will be judged against the high standards set by celebrated musicians of the past makes their task even more daunting.
The cycle finally ends much as it began. After a significant period devoted to study, this final stage of synthesis results in a much greater understanding of the work’s technical and musical demands. And though the final stage brings the process full circle, the study of music is ongoing. It’s not uncommon for musicians to devote entire careers to the exploration of challenging repertoire: the contrapuntal works of Bach, the late sonatas of Beethoven or the intricate works of Berg and Webern.
Like actors who return to a favorite role throughout their careers, musicians know they will be asked to perform the repertoire’s great masterworks again and again. Yet, each time a performer revisits such a work, there exists an opportunity to further illuminate its beauties and probe its mysteries. When that happens, performer and listener benefit equally from the process.
The orchestral repertoire is filled with works that made their debuts as solo keyboard compositions. Think of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Yet while the basic musical structure remains the same, the process of transcribing a keyboard work for orchestra often allows for greater depth, texture and, especially, color.
When Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” he, in essence, created an entirely new work. Though still recognizable to those who knew the original, Ravel’s version featured some novel orchestrational touches: the use of saxophone in “The Old Castle” or a tenor tuba in “Bydlo.” Of course, Ravel was a remarkable colorist, whether working with someone else’s scores or his own. The French impressionist transformed his own “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Valses nobles et sentimentales” with equal deftness.
Both Dvorak and Brahms experimented with a larger color palette in their “Slavonic Dances” and “Hungarian Dances,” respectively. With some, I prefer the four-hand piano originals; others seem conceived orchestrally. Alexander Gauk took Tchaikovsky’s piano suite known as “The Seasons” and handily arranged it for orchestra. The results frequently sound as if Tchaikovsky had done his own orchestrations.
Another noted example is Howard Hanson’s “For the First Time.” If we view the piano suite as being two-dimensional, these brief movements emerge anew when “colorized” with Hanson’s vivid orchestral palette. Percy Grainger qualifies as one of music’s most prolific meddlers, typically arranging his own works for multiple combinations of instruments. He even invented the term “elastic scoring” to describe his approach.
Grainger’s “The Immovable Do,” for example, has found its way into multiple published versions, including arrangements for band or mixed chorus (with or without organ); full orchestra; string orchestra or wind choir; pipe, electronic or reed organ; clarinet choir (saxophones at will) and woodwind choir. In cases such as these, keyboard works illustrate their versatility and adaptability to many different treatments; think of them as variations on an original theme. The result is a musical transformation whose myriad colors often cast the original in a flattering new light.
A rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but a musical burdened with an obscure title may never achieve the distinction it deserves. Consider “Away We Go,” “Welcome to Berlin,” “My Best Girl” and “The Silver Triangle.” People with a penchant for theatrical trivia will recognize “Away We Go” as the working title of the musical “Oklahoma!” But it wasn’t until the song “Oklahoma” repeatedly stopped the show that the authors changed the title to the more familiar “Oklahoma!” Residents of the Sooner State have been grateful ever since.
“Welcome to Berlin” was Kander and Ebb’s first big hit, renamed “Cabaret.” “My Best Girl” was eventually dropped as the title of Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame,” although it still exists as a song title in the same show. And “The Silver Triangle” would become Meredith Willson’s runaway hit, but not until its title was changed to “The Music Man.”
Other musical titles sound more like misnomers than actual show titles. The innocuous “Hard to Get” was changed to “Bon Voyage” before it became Cole Porter’s delightful “Anything Goes.” And while “I Picked a Daisy” and “The Roman Comedy” would have taken up considerably less room on theater marquees, these shows eventually became known as “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Shows whose titles were modified before opening on Broadway include “East Side Story” and “Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman.” They’re better known, of course, as “West Side Story” and “Hello, Dolly!” You’re a true theater fan if you can decipher “I Am Listening,” “Rainbow” and “Little Paris.” These titles eventually became “Lady in the Dark,” “110 in the Shade” and “Naughty Marietta,” respectively.
And had Stephen Sondheim stuck with his original title for “Anyone Can Whistle,” Henry Krieger would have been forced to choose a different title for “Side Show,” his 1999 musical about conjoined circus performers. One of the most humorous examples came from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who allegedly thought about calling “Jesus Christ Superstar” simply “Christ!” Fearful that religious groups might take exception, they also decided to pass on “How to Succeed in Egypt Without Really Trying” in favor of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
It makes you wonder why “Onward Victoria,” “Dance a Little Closer” and “The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall” never had their titles changed. Their cumulative runs might have totaled more than just three performances.
You rarely see them anymore, those music enthusiasts who file into the concert hall with scores carefully tucked under their arms. They often sit near the stage, flipping pages of their score in unison with the conductor. I last observed this practice in April during an open rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic. Sitting in front of me was a woman with a score of the “Symphony No. 4″ by Charles Ives. I never figured out if she was an Ives scholar (the Fourth Symphony is rarely programmed these days) or just wanted to follow along as Alan Gilbert conducted this curious piece.
This type of exercise is encouraged in most music schools, as students are expected to become reasonably proficient at score reading. Those planning to become band, orchestra or choral directors need to become adept at reading multiple lines simultaneously. The ears are capable of processing an infinite variety of sounds, pitches and timbres, a phenomenon that leads many to believe a concert experience should be purely auditory. Others prefer to link sounds with a visual image, thereby bringing two of our five senses into play.
I, too, enjoy listening to a composition unfold as I follow along in my score, but I don’t often make a practice of doing so in the concert hall. It can be an unnecessary distraction. I have also discovered that with some works, I actually end up hearing differently when I listen with score in hand. Pianist Van Cliburn once told me that whenever he played in Japan, he’d see hordes of students following every musical nuance in their printed scores. That led him to ponder just exactly what they were hearing. Was the performance providing them with an emotional response or an intellectual one? Was the eye tricking the ear into hearing something that wasn’t actually happening? Or did the visual aid of having a score in front of them somehow enhance the listening experience?
Low lighting in concert halls also makes score reading impractical, so, when one considers the potential for distracting other listeners, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Score reading can be invaluable during rehearsals, however, particularly when the work in question is new or simply unfamiliar. That’s extremely beneficial when we as critics are asked to assess a performance.
Under those circumstances, one can better grasp the work’s structure, musical language and orchestrational devices. I did appreciate having the score to Jennifer Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto” when Colin Currie gave the work its Oklahoma premiere with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in February. Being able to watch this complex work unfold on the page was immensely rewarding.
Ultimately, it brings to mind a familiar adage heard in music schools everywhere: “You should have the score in your head, not your head in the score.”
You wonder what recording executives were thinking when they suggested album titles such as ”Classical Music For People Who Hate Classical Music,” “Power Classics! Classical Music for Active Lifestyles” or ”Top Ten Reasons to Listen to Classical Music.” They seem to have lost faith in their product’s ability to generate revenue based on the music’s own merit. Today, the market is flooded with repackaged releases that advertise music appropriate for dining, romance, exercise, relaxation and a host of other activities.
Whatever happened to listening to music for music’s sake? I shudder to think that so many of the classical repertoire’s great masterpieces have been relegated to the world of Muzak. Today, people hear rather than listen. You also wonder who decided which works were deemed appropriate for a specific activity. Sony’s “Dinner Classics – Just Desserts” gives us an all-Mozart program, while the same label’s “Dinner Classics – A Cocktail Party” compiles music by Claude Bolling. “Dinner Classics – American Picnic” rightly features music by Gershwin, Copland and Scott Joplin, but for some unknown reason also includes a selection by the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps.
The Eclipse label wins the most ludicrous prize with its “Classical Music for Women.” One might suspect this to be a collection of music by the likes of Ccile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or Cindy McTee. Instead, it’s an operatic compilation featuring arias by Puccini, Bizet and Donizetti.
Such discs drive home the point that recording companies are no longer run by musicians but rather by businessmen who presumably have little interest in the product they’re hawking. Pity the poor CEO who assumes Elgar’s “Cockaigne Overture” is about an illicit drug or mistakes Haydn’s “Seasons” for Tchaikovsky’s. These marketing geniuses seem content to disguise the music to suit the public rather than trying to reach listeners based on the music’s own merits.