On this day in classical music: Austrian composer Franz von Suppe died at age 76 in Vienna in 1895. He composed more than two dozen operettas, few of which are heard today. In contrast, the overtures to “Poet and Peasant,” “Light Cavalry” and “Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna” are still heard occasionally in the concert hall. Listen to the Berlin Philharmonic perform the “Light Cavalry Overture.” Herbert von Karajan conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzc6BFAVgRo
On this day in the musical theatre: “Gypsy,” a musical based on the life and career of Gypsy Rose Lee, opened on Broadway in 1959. Sandra Church played the noted striptease artist but the show really focuses on her mother Rose. Played by Ethel Merman, this choice role would become synonymous with the quintessential backstage mother. Other notable Roses included Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Lansbury, Daly and LuPone all won Tonys as best actress in a musical. In 1960, Merman lost to Mary Martin, the original Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
Musical musings: The show offered a plethora of attractions. There was a fine production with Ethel Merman giving the most marvelously bravura performance of her career. Her electric personality made the abrasive, almost unpleasant Rose seem a little lovable. As things developed, it was to be Miss Merman’s last major new role. But the show itself was something of a marvel. It was pure musical comedy, filled with all the old musical comedy tricks: burlesque routines, strip-teases, soft-shoe dances, rousing choruses and love songs. Yet “Gypsy” was clearly something more, something superior. Its book — although it was a chronicle covering a number of years — was taut and relentless, with (Jerome) Robbins’ brilliant staging underscoring its cohesiveness and flow. It was packed with laughs, yet few were trite gags. The humor realized the dreams of several generations of librettists, stemming naturally, almost inevitable, from situations and characters. And the amazingly brilliant, yet unfailingly colloquial, lyrics propelled the action and deepened the characterizations. The established that (Stephen) Sondheim was, with (Alan Jay) Lerner, the heir to the earlier masters in the field, all now dead or retired. Most of all, there was (Jule) Styne’s score, the last important, traditional musical comedy (as opposed to musical play) score to be heard on Broadway. It was vibrant and melodic. “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Together Wherever We Go” all entered the ranks of standards – From American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman.
On this day in classical music: Russian composer Mikhail Glinka was born in 1804. His extensive musical output includes two operas, numerous orchestral works and a large body of piano music. Listen to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra perform Glinka’s best known work, the “Russlan and Ludmilla Overture.” Paavo Jarvi conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjUijyeFMu0
On this day in the musical theatre: “Forever Plaid,” a musical revue with a cast of four, opened off-Broadway in 1990. The show celebrated the all-male, close-harmony vocal quartets of the 1950s with songs ranging from “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Moments to Remember” to “Shangri-La and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” “Forever Plaid” ran more than four years and has since been performed around the world.
Musical musings: The history of Russian music as it is known today starts with Glinka, who wrote a large quantity of inferior, Western-influenced music before his two great operas, “A Life for the Czar” and “Russlan and Ludmilla.” To Russians in 1836 and for many years thereafter, “A Life for the Czar” stood alone — the first opera on a Russian subject, the first with a libretto that concerned peasants instead of nobles, the first to quote Russian folk song. Glinka never had an equivalent popular success, though “Russlan and Ludmilla” is a much more interesting and important opera. Composed in 1842, it was strongly nationalistic, with Orientalisms, a use of the whole tone scale, some rugged dissonances, and with much more personality than “A Life for the Czar.” – From The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.
On this day in classical music: The iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives died at age 79 in New York in 1954. The son of a bandmaster, Ives became an insurance executive who composed some of the most unusual works of the early 20th century. Listen to the United States Marine Band perform William Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’ “Variations on America.” Timothy Foley conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hs0VjhNWqn8
On this day in the musical theatre: The little known “Bravo Giovanni” opened on Broadway in 1962. Based on Howard Shaw’s 1959 novel “The Crime of Giovanni Venturi,” this musical told the story of an Italian restaurateur whose business is threatened when an upscale restaurant chain opens next door. To avoid going out of business, Giovanni builds a tunnel from his basement to the competing restaurant. With access to his competitor’s kitchen, Giovanni steals food and serves it at his restaurant at a reduced price.
Theatrical musings: The main problem of “Bravo Giovanni” was obvious: its plot was extremely farfetched. Would Giovanni and his cohorts really have been able to dig a tunnel between two restaurants and contrive a system to steal food from Uriti without anyone discovering it until the final curtain? Then, too, the romantic relationship between Giovanni and Miranda consisted of a series of artificial conflicts designed to keep them apart until the end. As “Hazel Flagg” had done some years earlier, “Bravo Giovanni” suspended performances for the summer; it reopened after Labor Day and closed for good a week later, losing $550,000, one of the costliest flops of its period. – From Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops by Ken Mandelbaum.
On this day in classical music: Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was given its premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1897. Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” featured Dukas’ best known work, with Mickey Mouse as the errant apprentice. Watch the popular segment here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98VVhvfadYw
On this day in the musical theatre: “Les Miserables,” one of the most successful musicals of the past quarter century, closed on Broadway in 2003. The winner of eight Tony Awards, including the top prize as best musical, “Les Mis” took its inspiration from Victor Hugo’s dark but optimistic novel about Jean Valjean, a prisoner who was dogged by the police inspector Javert. Featuring a score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, “Les Mis” ran for 16 years and has since been performed all over the world. The songwriting team’s next effort, “Miss Saigon” also proved successful but the subsequent “Martin Guerre” never made it to Broadway. Listen to a special cast signing “One Day More” during a 10th anniversary concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IddP8AAIGTQ
Theatrical musings: If anyone doubts that the contemporary musical theater can flex its atrophied muscles and yank an audience right out of its seats, he need look no further than the Act I finale of “Les Miserables.” At that point in the gripping pop opera at the Broadway (Theatre), the strands of narrative culled from Victor Hugo’s novel of early-nineteenth-century France intertwine in a huge undulating tapestry. And everywhere in the Paris of 1832 is the whisper of insurrection, as revolutionary students prepare to mount the barricade. This show isn’t about individuals, or even the ensemble, so much as about how actors and music and staging meld with each other and with the soul of its source. The transfiguration is so complete that by evening’s end, the company need simply march forward from the stage’s black depths into a hazy orange dawn to summon up Hugo’s unflagging faith in tomorrow’s better world. The stirring sentiments belong to hallowed nineteenth-century literature, to be sure, but the fresh charge generated by this “Miserables” has everything to do with the electrifying showmanship of the twentieth-century musical. – From Frank Rich’s New York Times review of the original Broadway production.
On this day in classical music: French composer Erik Satie was born in Honfleur in 1866. An eccentric composer, Satie wrote numerous works for piano, many of which have unusual, even bizarre names: “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear” and “Desiccated Embryos.” His three “Gymnopedies” remain popular. Debussy orchestrated the first and third of these attractive miniatures. Listen to the orchestral transcription of the first “Gymnopedie.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUlZylqILKI
On this day in the musical theatre: Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Godspell” opened off-Broadway in 1971. Before the decade ended, Schwartz produced two additional musicals (“Pippin,” “The Magic Show”) and contributed five songs to the Studs Terkel musical “Working.” Forty years later, “Godspell” is back on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Playing next door is Schwartz’s megahit “Wicked.” Listen to the popular song “Day By Day.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWQEUzOACm4
Musical musings: Erik Satie was an eccentric pianist and composer who entertained the customers at Le Chat Noir and also managed to secure for himself a prominent position in French aesthetic life. He composed stripped-down, short pieces in “white key” harmony, was an ardent anti-Wagnerian, and proclaimed a kind of music that in a way was antimusic, deliberately so. His music, which is a link between Chabrier and Poulenc, is of striking individuality. – From The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.
On this day in classical music: Russian composer Mily Balakirev died in 1910. His output includes two piano concertos and two symphonies. His best known work for piano is “Islamey,” an oriental fantasy composed in 1869. Listen to Boris Berezovsky play Balakirev’s monstrously difficult “Islamey.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5raMK4Z9co
On this day in the musical theatre: “Annie Get Your Gun” opened on Broadway in 1946. Irving Berlin’s classic musical told a boisterous tale of sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her rival Frank Butler. Berlin contributed one of his most durable scores, with hits that included “Moonshine Lullaby,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “Falling in Love Is Wonderful” and the showbiz anthem “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Annie Get Your Gun” ran nearly three years on Broadway, had a profitable national tour starring Mary Martin and ran four years in London’s West End starring Dolores Gray. In the decades since, “Annie Get Your Gun” has enjoyed tremendous popularity in regional, stock and collegiate productions. Listen to Ethel Merman sing her signature tune. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtxeKw1u1Vk&feature=fvst
Theatrical musings: “There’s No Business Like Show Business” served little plot function, but it was nonetheless a subtle and sophisticated tour de force. Its principal melody — a rather ordinary one — consists of only three tones: a businesslike tune about show business. Then Irving begins to work his tricks. In the bridge, the melody suddenly becomes a scale, or nearly a scale, in contrast to the tightly knit opening. In the fourth and final statement of the melody, illustrating anxiety about a flop show, the dominant chord Berlin sounds underscores the uncertainty; the ear cannot tell where this chord may lead. A trained musician would call this effect a “circle of fifths.” Berlin would say it simply sounded right to him. Even more impressive than the architecture of the melody is his use of syncopation to unify these disparate parts. The introduction of syncopation gives the entire tune a relentless, anxious, pulsing feeling perfectly suited to its meaning. It was a stroke of genius to syncopate the song; take it away, and the melody was too limp to contain much interest and conviction, but with it, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” became an anthem fit to take its place beside “God Bless America.” – From As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin by Laurence Bergreen
On this day in classical music: Claude Debussy’s ballet “Jeux” was premiered by the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1913. Debussy thought the idea of writing a ballet about a tennis match “idiotic and unmusical.” He finally accepted the comission after the agreed upon fee was doubled. Listen to the Concertgebouw Orchestra perform the last orchestral work Debussy composed. Christian Thielemann conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgbsPCuC-ko
On this day in the musical theatre: “Wonderland,” a musical based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” closed on Broadway after just 33 performances. The ubiquitous Frank Wildhorn provided the music, with lyrics by Jack Murphy. The accomplished cast included Janet Dacal as Alice, Darren Ritchie as the White Knight and Jack/Lewis Carroll, Jose Llana as El Gato, Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts and Kate Shindle as the Mad Hatter. The book was a mess, leaving the cast unable to surmount its many difficulties. It was yet another flop for Wildhorn, a pop song writer who has always struggled with adapting his musical style for the theater. “Wonderland” followed in the footsteps of other Wildhorn failures, including “The Civil War” and “Dracula.” Six months after “Wonderland” closed, Wildhorn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” opened and closed on Broadway in December, 2011. Wildhorn has had two qualified successes: “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” Listen to excerpts from the Broadway production of “Wonderland.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY0CvqKDA70
Musical musings: Despite following the demands of the (ballet) scenario, the music exists in its own right as a magnificently conceived blend of flexible rhythm and ever-changing colour. Debussy knew exactly the swift-moving effect he wanted to create, and his very clear and positive markings in the score leave no doubt about the fluidity and the prismatic shadings he sought to capture. His ideal was an orchestration “without feet” — that is, music which flows and “seems to be lit from behind.” In “Jeux,” he achieved it. – James Harding
On this day in classical music: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” received its premiere in London in 1832. The famous work was inspired by a cavern on Staffa, an island in the Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. It remains one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works. Listen to the Beethoven Academy Orchestra of Poland play the “Hebrides Overture.” Michal Dworzynski conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSyELPwHeWE
On this day in the musical theatre: Studs Terkel’s 1974 book “Working” provided the basis for a Broadway musical of the same name that opened in 1978. Subtitled “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” “Working” looked at people from all walks of life, from a waitress and a fireman to the millworker and the parking valet. Like the diversity of the people examined in Terkel’s novel, the musical brought together a large creative team. Stephen Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers all contributed music, with lyrics by Schwartz, Carnelia, Grant, Taylor and Susan Birkenhead. Listen to Barry Bostwick sing “Fathers and Sons” from the musical “Working.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxgMbMx3i8c&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PLF0DB0BC2720FD6DA
Theatrical musings: “You recognize yourself as a marginal person. As a person who can give only minimal assent to anything that is going on in this society: ‘I’m glad the electricity works.’ That’s about it. What you have to find is your own niche that will allow you to keep feeding and clothing and sheltering yourself without getting downtown. Because that’s death. That’s really where death is.” – A monologue from “Working” by Nora Watson, an editor.
On this day in classical music: English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was born in London in 1842. Together with Sir William S. Gilbert, Sullivan created 14 operettas between 1871 and 1896. Their working relationship was often strained but none of that is apparent in their works, the most popular being “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado.” Listen to the ever-popular “Three Little Maids From School” in a clip from the 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXWkIZUPmDY
On this day in the musical theatre: A little known musical by Michael J. Lewis and Anthony Burgess opened on Broadway in 1973. Based on the novel by Edmond Rostand, “Cyrano” starred Christopher Plummer in the title role. In dealing with the triangular love story — the large-nosed Cyrano, his beautiful cousin Roxana and good-looking but inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette — the authors didn’t break any new ground and the show disappeared after two months. Despite the short run, Plummer won the Tony for best actor.
Musical musings: The reason why “Cyrano” has never made it as a Broadway musical may be that Rostand’s play, one of the most romantic and lyrical in dramatic literature, is practically a musical all by itself. Only musical-theatre geniuses would be able to add enough in a musical adaptation to make it worth doing, but talents of that caliber would probably be too smart to attempt it in the first place. Rostand’s play did not really need songs, and the score would have had to have been far better to equal the musicality of the play’s dialogue. Another problem was that the action of the perfectly plotted, lengthy original was slowed down by the songs; even when the songs were good, they brought the evening to a halt. – From Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops by Ken Mandelbaum
On this day in classical music: Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana died in Prague in 1884. His international acclaim resulted from his opera “The Bartered Bride” and his cycle of six tone poems titled “Ma Vlast” (“My Fatherland”). The overture and three dances from “The Bartered Bride” have become extremely popular in the concert hall. Listen to the “Furiant” and “Dance of the Comedians” from “The Bartered Bride.” Hermann Scherchen conducts the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RguDbZ_Xtic
On this day in the musical theatre: “Carrie,” a musical based on the novel by Stephen King, opened on Broadway in 1988. Critics skewered this bloody musical, one that blended horror, awakening sexuality and the torments of adolescence. “Carrie” starred Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley as mother and daughter. The musical, which ran just five performances, lost all of its $8 million investment.
Musical musings: Throughout Broadway previews, “Carrie” was greeted with one of the most varied reactions ever, with derisive laughter and some boos mixing with cheers and wild applause. As was to be expected, “Carrie” opened on Thursday, May 12, 1988, to horrendous pans, even worse than the Stratford (the show was originally produced in England) notices, with the exception of Clive Barnes’s in the Post. Clearly, a musicalization of King’s “Carrie” was a questionable project to begin with, one that might never have worked completely. Daring and ambitious, it was also rather foolhardy, but the workshop production demonstrated that there was indeed potential. What makes “Carrie” so unique in flop musical history is its combination of soaring, often breathtaking sequences and some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical. It alternately scaled the heights and hit rock-bottom. “Carrie” also had nonstop energy and, unlike so many flops, was not dull for a second. But there was something ominous about it all, a feeling that it was playing to the lowest common denominator, to people who had never been to the theatre and would respond only to jolts of pop music. “Carrie” was fascinating, thrilling, horrible and unbelievable. The ads said, “There’s never been a musical like her” — and there never would be again. – From Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops by Ken Mandelbaum