Theatre yesterday and today



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Today is the birthday of Harold Arlen, one of the most influential composers among the contributors of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook. A cantor’s son, born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York in 1905, he played piano from a young age before dropping out of high school to become a songwriter. He headed for New York City and the creative atmosphere of Harlem, specifically the music coming out of the Cotton Club. By age twenty-five, after being an accompanist mostly in vaudeville, he was writing his own songs and struck it big with “Get Happy,” an instant popular hit.

The young Hyman Arluck (ne: Harold Arlen)

Arlen would go on to great success in film (he composed the songs for The Wizard of Oz, which included “Over the Rainbow,” as well as film scores that introduced “Blues in the Night” and One for My Baby”). His 1986 obituary in the New York Times claimed that “Executives of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers calculated that more than 35 of the 500-odd songs whose music he [Arlen] wrote had become what musicians call ‘standards’— that is, pieces of music that the musicians retain in their repertories year after year.” And what sort of standards? “Stormy Weather,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” ‘’Let’s Fall in Love,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,’’ “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive’’ and ‘’The Man that Got Away,” to name but a few.

Eight of Arlen’s first nine Broadway musicals were revues, which were very popular in the decade of the thirties when he first started writing for the stage. “Out of a Clear Blue Sky,” written with lyricist Ted Koehler, was a hit out of Arlen’s very first show in the very first year of the decade: the 1930 edition of Earl Carroll’s Vanities. His first book musical the following year, You Said it, ran 192 performances, which might not sound very long, but in those days was enough to assure a show probably broke even. He wouldn’t try his hand at a book musical again until more than a dozen years later when, in partnership with the brilliant lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, with whom he’d collaborated on The Wizard of Oz, they had a hit with Bloomer Girl. It was a star vehicle for Celeste Holm who had broken through a year earlier as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and it ran 692 performances with “Evalina” and “Right as the Rain” to add to Arlen’s now prodigious repertoire.

Arlen followed Bloomer Girl with arguably his greatest score for St. Louis Woman (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). Both men were masters of the blues and jazzy rhythms of Harlem and the south. Mercer’s came naturally, as he was born and reared in Savannah, Georgia. But somehow the cantor’s son from Buffalo, found a way to write songs for Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and other great African-Americans of the stage and screen. With St. Louis Woman, Arlen’s keen ear provided the right musical rhythms for the all-African American cast, and they found their perfect match in Mercer’s engaging wordplay.. Among the songs they wrote for the show were “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” “I Had Myself a True Love,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

Unfortunately, St. Louis Woman was plagued with the wrong kind of drama necessary to produce a hit musical play. First came the death of its book writer, Contee Cullen, two days before rehearsal began (at the age of forty-three, no less), which proved a major setback. Then the bad out-of-town reviews brought in a new director, Rouben Mamoulian (coming off both Oklahoma! and Carousel), whose reputation as something of a tyrant proved well-founded. The first thing he did was fire Ruby Hill, a neophyte who had been brought in right before rehearsals started when the star for whom the show was written — Lena Horne — had a sudden change of mind. Describing Hill as a neophyte is in the truest sense of the word: she was fresh out of high school. But the cast had come to love her and Pearl Bailey, who was stealing the show, took it upon herself to unite the company in protest. On the afternoon of the Broadway opening, Bailey led a revolt that demanded Hill be reinstated or the show would not go on.

On Hill went, but in spite of raves for Bailey, the show got mixed notices. No one liked the book, and in the crossfire, even the score was dismissed. St. Louis Woman closed after 113 performances and wasn’t deemed worthy of what was then the new experiment of producing an original cast album (Oklahoma! had only just invented the notion). So a few songs were recorded by the performers who introduced them, and the show faded into oblivion.

Ruby Hill (with Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers) in St. Louis Woman (1946)

With no full recording ever made and the orchestrations lost, it wasn’t until the New York City Center Encores! brought the show roaring back to life in a meticulous reconstruction in a 1998 staging that had critics stand up and take notice like they never had before. The show was one of the best realizations of the Encores! mission statement to “celebrate the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists.”

Arlen wrote three more Broadway musicals: House of Flowers, Jamaica and Saratoga. They each was a problematic show, the scores all had beauties among them, with House of Flowers running a very close second to St. Louis Woman for sheer beauty and inventiveness. Unfortunately, Flowers had a terrible pre-Broadway run too, and received mixed notices.Efforts to re-work and revise it (the lyricist was Truman Capote) have gone on for years, but it’s still considered a show with a musical score far superior to its other components.

Entering his sixties, Arlen didn’t exactly retire, but slowed down his workload, particularly after the death of his wife who he mourned deeply. He composed occasional songs for friends like Harburg who lured him into writing lyrics to a cartoon musical, Gay Purr-ee, for their mutual friend, Judy Garland. It was at this time that another unique female song stylist found in Arlen a kindred spirit. Barbra Streisand delved deeply into the great man’s songbook and sang something by him on each of the first three of her wildly successful albums.

Album cover of Harold sings Arlen (with friend).

Together they put out an album with the cheeky title Harold Sings Arlen with Friend in 1966. It was out-of-print for decades, but is now available for streaming. Listen to it for Streisand, of course, but check out what a fine singer the cantor’s son was. And what a fine artist.

Barbra Streisand and Harold Arlen in the recording studio.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.