Writers often say the toughest part of their work is taking the first step. Once they have that first paragraph out of the way, the rest seems to fall neatly into place. It’s much the same with regard to the musical theater. How does one begin a musical? With a full company production number? (“Hello, Dolly!”) An attractive solo? (“Oklahoma!”) Perhaps with an invitation to the audience to become vicarious participants? (“La Cage aux Folles”)
Whatever the method, the first lines can be crucial to the show’s success. Curious to discover how various authors handled this challenge, I looked at these all-important beginnings. Many break the theater’s fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” is the perfect example: “Welcome ladies and gentlemen. You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery — all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.”
“Irma La Douce” takes a similar approach: “Don’t worry — it’s quite suitable for the children. This is a story about passion, bloodshed, desire and death. Everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.” When the original opening to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” failed to produce the desired effect, the creators opted for a simpler approach: “Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple, and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight, I am pleased to announce a comedy.”
Then there are those musicals that open on a scene already under way. In Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam,” Sally Adams (a character patterned after Oklahoman Perle Mesta) is seen taking an oath of office: “… that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.” Some have used a variation on this approach, a situation comparable to entering a room and catching people in mid-conversation. As the curtain goes up on Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” Agnes Gooch and Patrick Dennis have just arrived in New York. “Golly, Agnes, New York is like a foreign country!” “You don’t have to worry, Patrick. I’m worried enough for both of us.”
Others feel the need to establish time and/or place. In “The Music Man,” the train conductor bellows: “River City Junction. River City, next station stop!” And in “The Robber Bridegroom,” the narrator informs us that “The town of Rodney, Mississippi, isn’t very much anymore. The river moved away and left us high and dry.” Though rare, speaking (or singing) in a foreign language can reinforce a musical’s setting. A group of nuns singing in Latin lends a reverential quality to “The Sound of Music,” while two young children singing a French tune emphasizes the French Polynesian setting of “South Pacific.”
Rare but effective is the use of a disembodied voice. In “The Apple Tree,” we hear a voice proclaim, “Adam — Adam, wake up. You are the first man. It shall be your task to name all the creatures in the Garden of Eden.” “Evita” opens in a Buenos Aires movie theater. The film is interrupted by this announcement: “It is the sad duty of the secretary of the press to inform the people of Argentina that Eva Peron, spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality at 2025 hours today.”
A couple of musicals make use of a bait-and-switch tactic. In “The Pajama Game,” the character Hines informs the audience that “This is a very serious drama. It’s kind of a problem play. It’s about capital and labor.” He then goes on to say that “I wouldn’t bother to make such a point of all this except later on, if you happen to see a lot of naked women being chased through the woods, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. This play is full of symbolism.”
Finally, some musicals establish a premise that will be acted upon as the show progresses. In “Sunday in the Park With George,” we hear the painter Georges Seurat thinking aloud: “White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design, composition, balance, light … and harmony.” Equally effective is John Adams’ proclamation in “1776″: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace — that two are called a law firm — and that three or more become a Congress. And by God, I have had this Congress!”
Getting the audience involved from the outset is the toughest job for any musical theater collaborators. But if they accomplish that without too much difficulty, chances are people will leave the theater knowing that their money was well-spent.
Are you familiar with the names William Sidney Porter, H.H. Munro, Ethel Zimmerman or Richard Jenkins? You probably know them better by their pen or stage names: O. Henry, Saki, Ethel Merman and Richard Burton. Classical music is similarly overrun with nicknames, including Winter Daydreams, Babi Yar, Rhenish and Reformation. Those designations are far easier to remember than Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth, Schumann’s Third and Mendelssohn’s Fifth.
What’s not commonly known is that most composers generally had nothing to do with “naming” their compositions. In many instances, such nicknames were appended by a performer or publisher. Some musical nicknames are logical. Mozart’s “Paris” symphony (No. 31 in D) was written for a performance in that city in 1778. Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata (No. 21 in C) was dedicated to Count Waldstein.
Felix Mendelssohn’s visits to Scotland and Italy inspired his Third and Fourth symphonies, better known today as the “Scottish” and “Italian.” Antonin Dvorak’s visit to the United States prompted the composition of his Ninth Symphony, better known as “From the New World.” Other nicknames have resulted from a particular instrument being prominently featured. Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony is usually referred to as the “Organ” symphony because of its prominent use of that instrument.
Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat” in turn became known as the “Triangle” concerto because of the instrument’s prominent, some say unrelenting, part. Chopin’s Op. 28 “Prelude in D-Flat” took the name “Raindrop Prelude.” It’s not clear whether the patter of raindrops was the inspiration for Chopin, but the sound is unmistakable. Other works that borrow sounds from nature include Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, known as “The Hen” because of a clucking sound in the first movement; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is called “The Pastoral” because of its depictions of everything from bird calls to a thunderstorm.
Two other symphonies by Haydn (No. 45 in F-Sharp Minor, No. 94 in G) took on the nicknames “Farewell” and “Surprise.” To convince his employer that his musicians needed a vacation, Haydn devised the ploy of having his players leave the stage a few at a time until only two were left to play the final measures. Prince Esterhazy got the idea. The Symphony No. 94 earned its title because of an unexpected fortissimo chord in the slow movement. Rumor had it that the loud chord was inserted to wake audience members who nodded off. Haydn always denied the claim.
The slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 was featured prominently in the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan.” This work has since become known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto. In 1944, Aaron Copland collaborated with choreographer Martha Graham on a piece he called simply “Ballet for Martha.” It would later be dubbed “Appalachian Spring.” Copland often told of listeners relating how they could hear the sounds of Appalachia in his music, something he never considered. But the name stuck.
There are at least two cases in which works by different composers feature the same nickname: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 both go by the name “Pathetique.” Similarly, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Howard Hanson’s Second are known as the “Romantic.”
With so many generic titles floating about in the world of classical music (Symphony in D, Piano Concerto in E-Flat, Sonata in C), these mnemonic devices are often a big help in differentiating one well-known composition from another.
People who have a curiosity about classical music often ask what to explore after they tire of the repertoire’s familiar favorites. It’s a common predicament given the enormous size of the repertoire. Identifying one’s “musical comfort zone” is a good place to start. A person with a fondness for Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” for example, would likely be overwhelmed by a Mahler symphony. But he or she might find Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces” enjoyable. They’re short, tuneful and accessible.
Intrigued by Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto?” Try Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor” or Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.” Both wear their lush romanticism on the sleeve. Many young listeners were introduced to opera by way of the orchestral suites from Bizet’s “Carmen.” If Spanish music brings out the gypsy in you, consider Chabrier’s “Espana,” de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.”
Perhaps folk tunes hold a certain appeal. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” might be a good place to begin. You might also explore Grainger’s “Irish Tune from County Derry” or Alfven’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1.” Those with a penchant for the unusual should definitely track down Ives’ “Symphony No. 2,” the finale, in particular. It’s a musical free for all.
Through television, baby boomers were introduced to countless classical works during the 1960s. For those who may wish to revisit those bygone days, try the overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell” or Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette.” Hollywood has frequently raided the classical repertoire for its sound tracks, although rarely are works heard in their entirety. The slow movements from Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 (Elvira Madigan)” are widely recognized. Try listening to the complete work for even greater appreciation.
Other works that are frequently excerpted include Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” (The Swan), Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” (18th Variation) and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (Simple Gifts). While each can stand alone, these snippets take on greater significance when heard in context. If you have adventuresome ears, try following Debussy’s “La Mer” with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” You’ll come away with very different views of music inspired by water.
Jazz enthusiasts should explore Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World” or Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.” Those intrigued by model trains might compare Villa Lobos’ “The Little Train of the Caipira” with Honegger’s “Pacific 231.” Finally, a few guilty pleasures: Khachaturian’s “Suite from Spartacus,” Weinberger’s “Polka and Fugue from Schwanda,” Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Respighi’s “Feste Romane” and Walton’s “Crown Imperial.”
So, whether you’re in search of little-known masterpieces or obscure musical gems, know that curiosity, patience and perseverance are the keys that will unlock music’s timeless mysteries.
The art of musical composition is a complex, mysterious undertaking that few laymen fully comprehend. Where do composers seek inspiration? Are they visited by a muse? Is the ability to write music genetic or can it be learned? Many people today still envision a composer locked in some ivory tower like a medieval monk who won’t be released until a certain number of pages of music have been completed. It’s a romanticized view that has little to do with reality.
Yes, composers do toil and often fret over their work, particularly when facing a deadline. Yet, while composition is clearly an artistic endeavor, it’s also a craft. As with most projects, getting started is the toughest obstacle. The rest, one hopes, falls into place without too much agony.
Morton Gould (1913-96) was one of this country’s major talents, having composed a large body of work that includes four symphonies, three ballets, a concerto each for piano and violin, chamber works and music for the stage. His composition “Stringmusic” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. In Peter W. Goodman’s biography, “Morton Gould: American Salute,” the composer shared his views on the compositional process. Gould was known for his sly wit, and this chronicle certainly reveals that. Despite its tongue-in-cheek nature, there’s more truth to these comments than one might suspect.
Day 1: Sign commission agreement. Suspicious but optimistic; full of good intentions and ideas.
Day 2: Ideas gone, but still good intentions.
Day 3: No intentions, regret agreeing to commission.
Day 4: Force feeding — attempt sketches — nothing.
Day 5: A glimmer — one note!
Day 6: Glimmer and note dissolve.
Day 7-10: Suicidal.
Day 11: Read clipping re how facile I am.
Day 12: Moderately suicidal.
Day 13: Aha! Two notes! But no glimmer.
Day 14: Glimmer and three notes!
Day 15: Tentatively optimistic.
Day 16: Another clipping re my “facility” — allergic reaction.
Day 17: Depressed but happily distracted by “head sounds.”
Day 18: More head sounds. More notes — glimmers.
Day 19: Glimmers turn to light — head sounds to notes.
Day 20: Depression ruined! A gusher! More than needed!
Day 21-30: Pruning, deleting — save unused materials for another rainy day.
Days Into Nights: Around the clock until finished — Eureka! Euphoria!
The Day After: The bends — return to “reality” (?)
The Second Day After: Back to “normality” (?) (Depressed, paranoid, suicidal but happy) until the next time!
In the words of American poet Alan Seeger, we all have a rendezvous with death. But the mystery lies in how and when it occurs. Julius Caesar thought a sudden death best, unaware that he was correctly forecasting his demise. Centuries later, H.L. Mencken wrote, “Of all the escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.” And the quick-witted Mark Twain once remarked that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
Researching the deaths of noted composers and conductors revealed many died of unusual circumstances. Consider Anton Webern, the serialist composer who was shot by an American military officer during World War II. Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz drowned off the coast of Israel in 1973. There’s also composer Enrique Granados, who was returning to his native Spain in 1916 when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
One of the earliest curiosities occurred in 1687, when Baroque composer and conductor Jean Baptiste Lully struck his foot with a large staff he used to conduct the orchestra. He subsequently developed gangrene and died shortly thereafter from blood poisoning. It would be the first in a long line of incidents in which noted conductors died on the podium or as a result of some related event.
In 1911, Austrian conductor Felix Mottl collapsed while conducting a performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Munich, Germany. Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum, who became Mengelberg’s successor at the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Holland, in 1945, died while conducting a rehearsal of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1″ in 1959. Dimtri Mitropoulos, the energetic Greek conductor who served as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1950-58, was conducting a rehearsal of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3″ in Milan, Italy, when he suddenly dropped dead.
The Italian conductor Giuseppe Patane was conducting a performance of “The Barber of Seville” in Munich when he died at age 57 in 1989. Two years later, Scottish maestro Bryden Thomson collapsed during an orchestral rehearsal and died four days later in Dublin, Ireland. In April 2001, Giuseppe Sinopoli was conducting “Aida” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. During Act III, at about 10 p.m., the Italian conductor fell to the ground and died within the hour.
Some of us may wish for a quieter, less public departure from life, but mere mortals have little choice in the matter. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.”
Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg once said, “There are plenty of good pieces waiting to be written in C major.” That’s surprising coming from a man who for the most part discarded tonality after 1910. But for two centuries leading up to that time, classical music had been rooted almost exclusively in tonality, with tonic/dominant relationships a standard adopted by all major Western composers.
C major is often considered music’s most rudimentary key by virtue of the fact that its scale uses neither flats nor sharps. Budding pianists often learn this scale before all others because it uses only the white keys. Not surprisingly, the key of C has figured prominently among the great masterworks of the past. Haydn chose the key of C major for 20 of his 104 symphonies, from the very early No. 2 to the late No. 97, and quite a few titled symphonies in between: “Alleluia,” No. 30; “Maria Theresia,” No. 48; “Il distrato,” No. 60; “La Roxelane,” No. 63; “Laudon,” No. 69; and “The Bear,” No. 82.
Seven of Mozart’s 41 symphonies are in C major: Nos. 9, 16, 22, 28 and 34, as well as the “Linz,” No. 36, and the great “Jupiter,” No. 41. Beethoven’s lone symphony in C was his first, often considered a transition from classicism to romanticism. The romantic period, which spanned most of the 19th century, features many other symphonies with a C major tonality, among them Schumann’s Second, Schubert’s Ninth, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Third and the only symphonies by Bizet and Dukas.
Early 20th century examples include the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius (1907), Prokofiev’s Fourth (1930), Virgil Thomson’s Second (1930), Stravinsky’s “Symphony in C” (1940) and Shostakovich’s Seventh (1941). With the establishment of the Second Viennese School, made up of composers Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Arnold Schonberg, tonality was all but discarded. Using the 12-tone system of composition, these composers constructed musical tone rows in which each pitch was considered the equal of all others.
A significant number of 20th century composers never embraced this new compositional trend, preferring instead to stick with classical and/or romantic forms and language. Others ventured down different paths, exploring or creating new musical styles of expression. So, where are the alleged works in C major that Schonberg said had not yet been written? They do exist: Terry Riley’s “In C” is a 1965 work that calls for an indefinite repetition of musical motives, all centering around the key of C major. And Howard Hanson’s “Symphony No. 6″ (1968) hovers around C major much of the time.
Yet, while other works in C major have surely been written, they’re often not identified as such. Program notes and CD inserts rarely discuss matters of tonality in works of the past half-century, primarily because composers have felt free to explore various key relationships without being tied to any one tonality. The future of serious music will no doubt affirm Schonberg’s claim that composers have not exhausted the key of C major. Or, to put it another way, works that have readily identifiable tonalities, be they C major or F-Sharp major.
The fact that such works may wander farther afield from C major or return to it less often will make composers less inclined to affix a key to a work’s title. Tonality, after all, is a relative term anyway.
When it comes to filming period pieces or literary masterworks, Hollywood generally insists on historical accuracy for everything from costumes and props to accents and manners. Filmmakers know that even the slightest oversight can compromise a scene. Knowledgeable audiences are the first to acknowledge the director’s extra efforts, yet they are the very ones to point out some glaring anachronism that was never intended.
Think of the gladiator sporting a wristwatch in “Spartacus,” Paris’ famous Sacre Coeur (15 years from completion) when “Moulin Rouge” was set or the use of Styrofoam cups (before they existed) in “Driving Miss Daisy.” The biggest gaffes, though, are more often heard than seen. Those with a critical ear can identify a piece of music that’s out of place in the context of the movie’s historical setting.
One of the most obvious examples is “The Elephant Man,” a film that chronicled the story of the horribly disfigured John Merrick (1862-1890). Although set in Victorian England, the film featured Samuel Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings,” a work not written until nearly a half century after Merrick’s death. In 1998, Cate Blanchett starred as Elizabeth I in a much-heralded film about the British monarch. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth ruled England from 1558-1603. That makes the inclusion of the “Nimrod” variation from Edward Elgar’s 1899 “Enigma Variations” a puzzling choice.
If “Elizabeth” at least stayed with a British composer, “Henry V” featured a sound track that borrowed from a collection of 20th century French folk songs: Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne.” Henry V’s reign was from 1413-1422. Carl Orff’s epic “Carmina Burana” (1937) has figured prominently in countless Hollywood films, from “The Doors” to “The Bachelor.” “Excalibur,” a graphic retelling of the famous Arthurian legend, used “Carmina’s” famous opening “O Fortuna” to suggest a medieval setting. But it also included excerpts from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” not written until 1859.
Finally, there’s the cult classic “Somewhere in Time,” a story about a Chicago playwright who travels back in time to 1912 so that he can romance a famous stage actress. The famous 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is used as a romantic motif that underscores the romance between Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. But the famous piece wasn’t composed until 1934, 22 years after the film’s setting.
Musical anachronisms may elude many filmgoers, but for those with a knowledge of the classical repertoire, these oversights can be considered the audio equivalent of “What’s wrong with this picture?”
If you stick around to read a movie’s end credits, you’ll likely discover that the film you just saw included music by some of the symphonic world’s most distinguished composers. Everyone from Adolphe Adam to Kurt Weill have had their music featured in Hollywood films. Many are repertory staples (Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in “Apocalypse Now,” Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony” in “Babe”), while others are scarcely known (Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” in “The Exorcist,” Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” in “2001: A Space Odyssey”).
Not surprisingly, the music of Bach has long figured prominently in films, ranging from “The American President” (Fifth Brandenburg Concerto) and “The English Patient” (Goldberg Variations) to “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (Sleepers Awake!) and “Schindler’s List” (Second English Suite). The music of Beethoven would seem to be nearly as popular: “Crimson Tide” (Moonlight Sonata), “Patch Adams” (Fur Elise) and “Traffic” (Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor).
Rounding out symphonic music’s “Three B’s” is Brahms, whose music has appeared in “Hamlet” (First Symphony), “Hillary and Jackie” (Second Cello Sonata) and “The Truman Show” (the famous Lullaby). Chopin also ranks high among composers whose music is inserted in films. Consider “Face/Off” and “Shine” (both feature the Raindrop Prelude) or “Lost and Found” (the Revolutionary Etude).
Mendelssohn isn’t far behind, with music from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a clear favorite. It’s been featured in many films from “Analyze This” and “Clueless” to “The Father of the Bride” and “Flubber.” Arguably one of the most memorable uses was the finale of the Italian Symphony in “Breaking Away,” a 1979 film about a bicycle race. Film directors and composers have understandably been drawn to the music of Mozart, a titan in the musical firmament. The Clarinet Concerto can be heard in “American Gigolo” and “Out of Africa;” excerpts from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in “Batman” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Opera giants Puccini and Wagner are also exceedingly popular: music from “La Boheme” shows up in “Awakenings” and “Moonstruck,” while the haunting “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi” is heard in “Boxing Helena,” “A Room With a View” and “Speed 2.” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” has long been associated with “Apocalypse Now,” while “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” created an appropriately somber mood in “Excalibur.”
Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” top the list of the most popular classical excerpts featured in movies. That’s not surprising when one recalls just how many weddings occur on film. One or both excerpts are used in “The Father of the Bride,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “In and Out,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Runaway Bride” and “The Wedding Planner.”
Less frequent are those instances when music directors focus on the music of one composer. The basketball film “He Got Game” features numerous selections by Copland. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a tale of a young Czech doctor, makes ample use of Janacek’s music. Finally, there are those subtle references that often go undetected by most audiences. “The Right Stuff,” the story of the seven Mercury astronauts, offered portions of Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets.” And “Wit,” a film about a college professor who faces an unknown future after she is diagnosed with breast cancer, deftly makes use of Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”
Given the tight shooting schedules for most feature films, it’s amazing one finds such a diversity of musical excerpts, and, in the case of “The Right Stuff” and “Wit,” a musical sophistication that raises the bar for others.
“If you’re going to steal, be sure to steal from the best,” the old saying goes. It’s a sentiment adopted by countless Broadway songwriters, from Wright and Forrest to Oscar Hammerstein II and Charles Strouse. Eight months after “Oklahoma!” (1943) opened on Broadway, Hammerstein introduced “Carmen Jones,” a contemporary retelling of Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Reset in an American parachute factory, “Carmen Jones” appropriated Bizet’s popular “Habanera,” “Seguidilla,” “Gypsy Song” and “Toreador Song,” all set to new lyrics by Hammerstein.
A year later, Bob Wright and Chet Forrest struck gold with “Song of Norway,” an operetta loosely based on the life of Edvard Grieg. The composer’s “Lyric Pieces for Piano” provided Wright and Forrest with many lovely melodies, most notably a waltz for “Now,” a nocturne that was morphed into “Strange Music” and an “Albumblatt” for “Three Loves.” During the next 20 years, Wright and Forrest would find inspiration in the music of other great masters, including Johann Strauss (“The Great Waltz”), Heitor Villa Lobos (“Magdalena”), Camille Saint-Saens (“Dumas and Son”) and Rachmaninoff (“Anya”).
Their most memorable work by far was the 1953 musical “Kismet.” As before, they fashioned new lyrics to existing melodies, this time by the 19th century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. From his “String Quartet in D,” they created the impassioned “And This Is My Beloved” and the lilting “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” From the “Polovtsian Dances” came the haunting “Stranger in Paradise.” At the annual Tony Awards, Wright, Forrest and Borodin were honored with the Best Musical Score.
Yip Harburg, a lyricist best remembered for his contributions to “The Wizard of Oz,” turned to the music of Jacques Offenbach for 1961′s “The Happiest Girl in the World.” The famous “Barcarolle” from “The Tales of Hoffmann” was recast as “Adrift on a Star,” while the “Ballad of Kleinzach,” also from “Hoffmann,” was turned into the “Entrance of the Courtesans.” Melodies from “Gaite Parisienne” and “La Belle Helene” also found their way into Harburg’s witty score.
The practice of setting lyrics to existing melodies appears to have fallen into disuse about the time the rock musicals of the 1970s arrived. But it would resurface in 1987 when lyricist Hal Hackady used music by John Philip Sousa for “Teddy and Alice.” The March King’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” served as a rousing finale (the aptly-titled “Wave the Flag”) for this story about Teddy Roosevelt and his daughter Alice.
There was also the 1991 flop “Nick and Nora,” which featured a lovely score by Charles Strouse. The composer of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and “Annie” among others, Strouse deftly wove a portion of a Lehar melody from “The Merry Widow” into a comic number titled “Men.” In 2002, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” thrust first-time collaborators Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan into the spotlight. Together, they fashioned a lively if unmemorable score save the numbers they borrowed from Tchaikovsky, Victor Herbert and Gilbert and Sullivan.
Herbert’s “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” and “I’m Falling in Love With Someone” were lifted almost unaltered from “Naughty Marietta,” while music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet served as the basis for their musical’s “Nuttycracker Suite.” To round out the eclectic score, Tesori and Scanlan borrowed the famous patter song “My Eyes Are Fully Open” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Retitled “The Speed Test,” the number became a dictation audition for Sutton Foster’s Millie, with Marc Kudisch delivering the letter’s text at ever-increasing speed.
While some of these musical borrowings were questionable at best, one should at least give credit to these composers and lyricists for recognizing a good tune when they heard it.
Who are Broadway’s best songwriters? If such decisions are based solely on winners of the Tony Award for best musical score, the results can be rather surprising. Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Meredith Willson, Charles Strouse and Marvin Hamlisch earned only a single best score Tony Award during their respective careers. And, while Porter (“Kiss Me Kate”), Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), Willson (“The Music Man”), Strouse (“Annie”) and Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”) won for their most popular scores, Styne and Bernstein were overlooked for their respective masterpieces: “Gypsy” and “West Side Story.” Styne won instead for the little known “Hallelujah, Baby!” and Bernstein for “Wonderful Town.”
Other one-time winners have included Britain’s Lionel Bart (“Oliver!”), Pete Townshend (“Tommy”) and Elton John (“Aida”); France’s Claude-Michel Schonberg (“Les Miserables”) and Oklahoma’s Roger Miller (“Big River”). Six composers have walked off with a pair of Tony Awards for best score: Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady” and “Gigi”), Jerry Bock (“Fiorello!” and “Fiddler on the Roof”), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (“The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees”), Jerry Herman (“Hello, Dolly!” and “La Cage aux Folles”) and Maury Yeston (“Nine” and “Titanic”).
Broadway’s three-time winners include Richard Rodgers (“South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music” and “No Strings”), Cy Coleman (“On the 20th Century,” “City of Angels” and “The Will Rogers Follies”), John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Woman of the Year” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), and Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Evita,” “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard”). To date, only one composer has won more than three Tonys for best musical score (Rodgers was honored with a special Tony in 1962), although that could change considering Lloyd Webber is still active.
The record holder, with seven wins, is Stephen Sondheim. During his remarkable 50-year career, Oscar Hammerstein’s famous protege has been honored for his scores to “Company” (two Tonys), “Follies” and “A Little Night Music” – three back-to-back wins in the early 1970s, a record unequaled. Sondheim also ended that decade with a win for his score to “Sweeney Todd” and has since picked up medallions for “Into the Woods” (a surprise victory over Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”) and “Passion” (which was pitted against “Beauty and the Beast”).
While few of those winners would be questioned, the list of overlooked gems far outweighs those that were recognized. What musical theater lover would want to do without “Candide,” “Funny Girl,” “She Loves Me” or “Mame”?
Here’s hoping that recent winners Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (“Urinetown”), Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (“Avenue Q”), Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”), Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone (“The Book of Mormon”) and Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (“Newsies”) will join their distinguished predecessors and write more Tony-worthy scores.