On this day in classical music: Austrian composer Franz Lehar was born in Hungary in 1870. The son of a bandmaster, Lehar would achieve fame through his many popular operettas: “The Land of Smiles,” “The Countess of Luxembourg,” “Paganini,” “Giuditta” and his most famous, “The Merry Widow.” This tale about a widow and her substantial inheritance produced many classic melodies, including “Vilia” and the “Merry Widow Waltz.” Joan Sutherland made her North American farewell in this Lehar classic. In this clip, Sutherland (as Hanna) makes her entrance in a 1979 production of “The Merry Widow” in Sydney, Australia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-5ES4-zmV4
On this day in the musical theatre: “Barnum,” a Cy Coleman musical about the legendary Prince of Humbug, opened on Broadway in 1980. Jim Dale portrayed the energetic showman and Glenn Close starred as his wife Charity. The production captured the extravagance of the circus, with tightrope walkers, jugglers, trapeze artists and clowns. Coleman’s high spirited score captured the essence of the circus, from a patter song about Barnum’s attractions to a charming anthem that illustrated the couple’s opposing views about the colors of their respective lives. Dale won a Tony Award and the production also earned Tonys for scenic and costume design.
Musical musings: “The Merry Widow Waltz” was the first piece I played as a beginning band member. I shudder to think what our efforts sounded like but even then, Lehar’s charming melody made a vivid impression on my young ears. Years later, I was fortunate to be part of the pit orchestra for a fully-staged production of Lehar’s masterpiece. In 1989, I saw Joan Sutherland’s North American farewell at the Dallas Opera. At 62, Sutherland was a bit long in the tooth to play the elegant widow but her supple voice was mesmerizing. To this day, I never tire of hearing Lehar’s gorgeous score.
On this day in classical music: Russian composer Anatoly Liadov was born in 1855. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Liadov to compose a new ballet score for his Ballets Russes. Liadov labored over the work but with the season quickly approaching, a young Igor Stravinsky was pressed into service. The latter’s work, “The Firebird,” made Stravinsky an international success. Today, Liadov is often remembered as a miniaturist, with such works as “Baba Yaga,” “Kikimora” and “The Enchanted Lake.” Listen to the USSR Symphony Orchestra play “Baba Yaga.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAzItLBNs3w
On this day in the musical theatre: Rock music and the musical theater finally merged successfully in the 1968 hit “Hair.” Known as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” “Hair” reflected the passionate, sometimes violent culture that was playing out in American society. The musical celebrated the sexual revolution of the 1960s through songs ranging from “Hashish” and “Sodomy” to “Good Morning Starshine” and “Let the Sunshine In.” The show ran more than four years. A successful revival opened in New York in 2009 and won a Tony Award for best revival.
Theatrica musings: The youth of America, especially those on college campuses, started protesting all the things that they saw wrong with America: racism, environmental destruction, poverty, sexism and sexual repression, violence at home and the war in Vietnam, depersonalization from new technologies, and corruption in politics…. Contrary to popular opinion, the hippies had great respect for America and believed that they were the true patriots, the only ones who genuinely wanted to save our country and make it the best it could be once again…. [Long] hair was the hippies’ flag – their… symbol not only of rebellion but also of new possibilities, a symbol of the rejection of discrimination and restrictive gender roles. It symbolized equality between men and women. – Scott Miller
On this day in classical music: David Diamond’s “Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel” received its premiere in Rochester, New York in 1938. Ravel had died four months earlier.
On this day in the musical theatre: “Chess,” a musical written by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, found success as a concept album released in 1984. A subsequent London stage production ran for three years. A much-revised version opened on Broadway in 1988 but only managed a two month run. The musical, which told the story of an American and a Russian competing in a world chess championship, captivated audiences with its score if not its plot. The musical produced one of the musical theater’s great anthems. Listen to David Carroll sing the “Anthem” from “Chess.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhqud-xjAi4
Musical musings: “Chess” is a surprisingly good score, something more than what the word “pop” means in even its widest sense. There are touches of rock in the “Terrace Duet,” and rather a dose of it in “No Control.” Anders Eljas’ orchestrations sound like those for no other show, with undulating melodic lines over the carousing of the xylophone — music for a war without borders. – From The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, by Ethan Mordden.
On this day in classical music: Jaromir Weinberger’s opera “Schwanda the Bagpiper” was given its premiere in Prague in 1927. Its use of Czech folk material made it known throughout Eastern Europe. Today, its rousing “Polka and Fugue” are popular in the concert hall, much more so than the opera itself. Listen to the “Polka and Fugue” performed by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgbhuQXNst8
On this day in the musical theater: It took 58 years for the popular 1940 film “Philadelphia Story” to make to the stage. In between came a 1956 film, titled “High Society.” The stage version, which went by the name “High Society,” featured a musical score that brought together Cole Porter classics from “Paris,” “Red, Hot and Blue,” “Can Can,” “Panama Hattie” and “Fifty Million Frenchman.” The Broadway version only lasted 18 weeks but native Oklahoman Stacey Logan was the standby for Melissa Errico’s Tracy Samantha Lord.
Musical musings: Turning movie musicals like “Victor/Victoria” into stage musicals rarely works, as illustrated by such examples as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Gigi,” “State Fair,” “High Society,” and the two dance movies turned into singing shows: “Footloose” and “Saturday Night Fever.” None of these shows intended to break new ground, but they also didn’t seem to know how to even if they’d wanted to. At best they did only decent business, which is not sufficient to keep a big show running long enough to pay off its initial investment. None of them managed to do so. – From “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance,” by Sheldon Patinkin.
On this day in classical music: Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony was given its premiere in 1965, nearly 50 years after it was composed and 11 years after his death. Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere. The massive forces required to play it, including an assistant conductor, has severely limited its performances. The U.S. Postal Service issued a first class stamp honoring Ives in 1997.
On this day in the musical theatre: “The Life,” a gritty musical about pimps, hookers and other lowlifes who once populated New York’s Time Square, opened on Broadway in 1997. Cy Coleman’s jazzy score and Ira Gasman’s lyrics kept the show running for just over a year. Listen to the female cast of “The Life” perform “My Body” on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkQ0RvfwIQY
Musical musings: Ives was really radical, a terror to the “ladybirds” and “Rollos” (his code words for unambitious concertgoers) who couldn’t believe their ears. “You gdddarn sissy-eared mollycoddle,” he told a hissing conservative after a performance of Carl Ruggles’ “Men and Mountains.” “When you hear strong masculine music like this, stand up and use your ears like a man!” – A Guide to Orchestral Music by Ethan Mordden.
On this day in classical music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840. Although trained as a civil servant, Tchaikovsky would become the first Russian composer whose music had an international impact. His extensive catalogue includes 10 operas, six symphonies, three ballets, four concertos (three for piano, one for violin), four orchestral suites and many works for piano. In 1891, he was invited to the United States to be part of the inaugural concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
On this day in the musical theatre: “Grand Hotel,” a musical based on the popular 1932 screenplay, closed on Broadway after a run of 1,018 performances. Its score was a patchwork affair that featured music by Robert Wright and George Forrest (for a failed 1958 version titled “At the Grand”) and Maury Yeston (“Nine,” “Titanic”). Legal issues delayed the recording of the original cast recording, one that wasn’t released until three years after the show opened. For many, it was worth the wait, although original cast member David Carroll, who was cast as the Baron, died before the cast went into the recording studio. A bonus track, taken from one of Carroll’s cabaret shows, was a reminder of the singer’s great talent. Watch Brent Barrett (Carroll’s replacement as the Baron) and Michael Jeter (the clerk Otto Kringelein) perform the joyous “We’ll Take a Glass Together.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDc9ul70kyY
Theatrical musings: Like so many shows now, “Grand Hotel” made do with a unit set. This time the design was an eye-filler. Tony Walton placed the orchestra atop the playing area (as he had done for “Chicago”), creating the hotel out of four columns supporting the orchestra level, three glorious chandeliers, the revolving front door, and four rows of eight chairs each. The chairs were constantly moved to outline subsidiary playing areas — various principals’ rooms, the hotel bar, the conference room, the roof — even, at one point, six locations simultaneously. For in recutting the show, so to say, (Tommy) Tune used a split-screen technique throughout. – From The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, by Ethan Mordden.
On this day in classical music: George Friderich Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” received its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Of his more than two dozen oratorios, “Messiah” is clearly the best known, largely for its rousing “Hallelujah Chorus.” The oratorio’s text deals with the coming of Christ, his birth, his message of redemption and his crucifixion. Portions of “Messiah” are regularly performed at Christmas and Easter.
On this day in the musical theatre: Four years before Mary Martin made the role of Peter Pan her own, the other “Peter Pan” opened on Broadway. Featuring music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, this rarely-heard version of Sir James Barrie’s classic tale featured Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Only a half dozen songs were released on the original cast recording, although Bernstein composed a good deal of underscoring and music for scene changes. A 2005 studio cast recording of Bernstein’s score proved to be a revelation for musical theater fans.
Theatrical musings: (Bernstein’s) score is delightfully tuneful, on the whole appropriate as an attempt to musicalize the famous story, sparkling with the genius of the man who would later go on not only to write the epoch-making ‘West Side Story,’ but dazzle the world with his brilliance on so many levels that today any young musician must study, understand, and form an opinion of this complex , almost offensively gifted human being. – Daniel Felsenfield.
On this day in classical music: Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was born in the Ukraine in 1891. Because of his adventurous harmonic language, which often shocked listeners with its acerbic dissonances, Prokofiev became known as the enfant terrible of the Russian musical world. His extensive output features seven symphonies, five piano concertos, numerous operas, ballets and film scores. Listen to the march from his popular suite “Peter and the Wolf.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctsWdUaHsHM
On this day in the musical theatre: A year before Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created the musical theater classic “Fiddler on the Roof,” they collaborated on “She Loves Me,” an intimate, charming 1963 musical based on the play “Parfumerie” by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. In it, two store clerks become pen pals but are unaware that they’re writing to each other. “She Loves Me” charmed Broadway audiences all over again when it resurfaced in 1993.
Musical musings: When you have nothing new to say, camouflage your inability by pelting the hearer’s ears with cacophonies. The recipe for this sort of composition is as simple as that for boiling an egg. Write anything that comes into your head no matter how commonplace. Then change all the accidentals, putting flats in the place of sharps, and vice-versa, and the thing’s done. – From a review of Prokofiev playing his own works in recital in the New York World, Nov. 21, 1918.
On this day in classical music: Paul Dukas’ ballet “La Peri” was premiered in Paris in 1912. Listen to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra perform the well-known fanfare. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXJxHXe9FeQ
On this day in the musical theatre: Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff struck gold with their musical “Tommy,” a rock musical based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball wizard. “Tommy” won five Tony Awards, including one for best musical score. In a rare tie, Townshend shared the best score award with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Theatrical musings: (With ‘Tommy’), the deaf-dumb-and-blindness becomes a metaphor, if you like, for that dynamic between confrontation and escape that goes on at the moment of teenage rebellion, which is what rock and roll is about. As a teenager, you’re never alone, ever. You’re never responsible for yourself. Whether you confront, whether you escape, whether you stay or whether you go — in the words of the Clash — the critical moment for you as a teenager is when you realize you’re on your own. With ‘Tommy,’ I realized I had invented a new kind of hero — a hero with nowhere to go. A hero with no potential for heroism, a hero who only had what we all have, which is life stretching out before him. That’s the moment that you end up at in the play. You end up with Tommy at that great rock and roll moment. – Pete Townshend
On this day in classical music: Leonard Bernstein’s “Clarinet Sonata” was premiered in Boston in 1942. Listen to clarinetist Jonathan Cohler and pianist Rasa Vitkauskaite perform the first movement. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHM2Xv0P7YM
On this day in the musical theatre: The 1976-77 Broadway season had a huge hit with “Annie,” a musical based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin provided music and lyrics for this popular family show, one whose original production ran nearly six years. “Annie” has remained exceedingly popular in stock, regional and collegiate theater. A 1999 made-for-television movie version starred Oklahoman Kristin Chenoweth as Lily St. Regis.
Musical musings: In his neo-Hindemithian work the “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” (the first piece of his to be published), the composer’s personality emerges in its asymmetric jazzy passages. – From Working With Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb.