Thursday, June 25, 2009

Show Me

Last night we had a wonderful time at a Smithsonian presentation by a music historian named Robert Wyatt who did about a 2 1/2 hour lecture, with film clips and many musical recordings, of the saga of Lerner & Loewe. He's previously done Rodgers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter, and will end with Irving Berlin.

I hadn't realized that as with so many partners, L & L disliked each other and broke up repeatedly. (Lerner also broke up with his other partners; he was married eight times.) But what incredible music and lyrics! And what memories the whole evening conjured up!

First, I did learn a few things. Moss Hart had been the key catalyst of My Fair Lady. Yes, Shaw's words were perfectly suited to Lerner's lyrical talents, but Hart made everything work, including holding Rex Harrison's hand as Hart personally coached the young Julie Andrews to grow rapidly into the consummate professional she had been bred to be by music-hall performing parents. Hart had been out of action (he soon after tragically died at 52) when Camelot opened without benefit of his brilliant show-doctoring. He eventually came back, totally revamped the show (which was still running by dint of its huge advance sale), got it 20 minutes exposure on Ed Sullivan's show, and left it a success, even if the critics didn't come back to see what he had wrought.

The lecturer, however, roused my ire right at the start. He mentioned that L & L had met at the Lambs in 1942. But he misplaced the location of the Lambs (in its last sad days it had moved uptown to share quarters with some women's club) which was actually in a Stanford White building on West 44th Street (they had been there at least since soon after the turn of the 20th century, when the theater district--along with the Times-- moved north to its present location). Last month I walked by as the interior was being razed for new construction--another tragedy because White had designed that too, including the wonderful theater in the clubhouse.

More on the topic, I remembered when my dad introduced me to Fritz Loewe, who was dining solo at the club's Round Table, a hangout for long-time theatrical veterans. Because I was probably in high school, I don't recall noticing that he was especially short, which he was. He did have a Viennese accent and that leads me to note that I loved Loewe's lilting Viennese melodies before warming to Lerner's clever words. And then I heard about the Lambs' salute to L & L, where most of the cast performed before their peers. When Andrews started to sing, the assemblage as if one demanded one song above all others: "Show Me".

It's always been my favorite in the show, too. Yes, "The Rain in Spain" is the dramatic climax of the musical, but "Show Me" was where Loewe's most delightful tune and Lerner's sharp lyrics hit their peak. The pair wrote several shows before hitting it big with Brigadoon. It was fun watching a clip of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse starring in the movie, because their voices were nothing special--Kelly just a few notes stronger vocally than Fred Astaire, for whom Cole Porter wrote all those great songs--but when they started to dance, wow! And the first L & L show had been a flop but again, the dancing must have been something else because the director was none other than George Balanchine.

Two more memories: at a Lambs show where I heard Lee Sullivan, whose delightful Irish tenor originated "I'll Go Home With Bonny Jean" and "Come to Me, Bend to Me" in Brigadoon and never managed to get a similar casting. And seeing that James Barton had been the original lead in Paint Your Wagon brought back a moment at the Lambs' summer picnic (naturally called the "Washing") at the old Percy Williams estate on Long Island where they convinced the by-then legendary Barton to do a brief song-and-dance: he'd been most famous in Tobacco Road in the 30s.

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