Theatre yesterday and today



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I probably listen to a couple of Broadway show tunes a day (at least). It’s always been hard for me to explain why, especially when most people’s tastes don’t naturally gravitate to this kind of music — and that’s putting it politely. For me, one of the main reasons is that behind each song is the story (or stories) it depicts, told from the character’s point of view in the show for which it was written, giving the song added meaning and resonance. Also there are memories that certain songs evoke from productions I’ve seen of the musical for which it was written, both in performance and staging. Then there is the power in a single phrase of music that can sometimes be overpowering, such as the one in Stephen Sondheim’s “Beautiful” from his Sunday in the Park With George: “See, a perfect tree.” I can’t explain why it is, but those four words; the way they sit on the line; and the orchestration Michael Starobin created it for it more than thirty years ago, haunts, moves and thrills me — every time.

And it’s important to note that it might not have that effect on me were it not for context. For when it is sung late in the first act, we have become well aware of the struggles Sondheim and James Lapine’s fictional version of the artist Georges Seraut is going through. Why his search for connection is confined to “things, not people,” as his mistress Dot decries. Seeing a perfect tree (for George) is beautiful and it sends him. Sondheim’s genius is providing a melody that enhances that beauty. As done in the current revival now playing for another month at the Hudson Theatre, Jake Gyllenhaal and Penny Fuller make it beautiful.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Penny Fuller in the current revival of Sunday (2017)

I could go into all of “Beautiful” phrase for phrase for the rest of this column, but instead, I’ve chosen to analyze a different song. “Come Back To Me,” written by Alan Jay Lerner (words) and Burton Lane (music) for their 1965 original musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, is one I never tire of listening to. Written for a specific character about a specific character in a very specific show, none of that mattered when it became a hit single, performed by dozens of outstanding artists of the 1960s, both male and female, who sang it in their nightclub acts and on television’s bounty of musical variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace. I’m obsessed with its bouncy, seductive tune that offers a built-in swagger to all who covered it, and the fun each singer has with its lyrics, clever and surprising in their rhyming, even after a thousand listens.

The original poster for On a Clear Day’s Boston engagement, where Louis Jourdan

was replaced by John Cullum, who opened the show in New York.

“Come Back To Me” is sung by psychiatrist Dr. Mark Bruckner about Daisy Gamble, a woman he has been treating and putting under hypnosis in order to cure her of her cigarette habit. Only he inadvertently winds up falling for the woman Daisy once was in a past life in the late eighteenth century, Melinda Wells. When he comes to the revelation that Daisy is one he really loves, and not Melinda, he must have her back. The song starts relatively simply:

Set against a swinging and jazzy tune, Lerner’s delicious wordplay kicks in with its second verse:

This is a list song, common in musicals going back to the 1920s. The potential for such songs to drift into monotony and predicability are loaded with pitfalls. Stephen Sondheim has written of the first time he was at a new 1953 musical with a score by his friends, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “I remember hearing Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town sing “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” and thinking when she got to “Ninety-eight ways to go, I thought that I’d be in the theatre all weekend.” For one of the best in the genre, all one needs to do is head for the nearest multiplex cinema and hear Howard Ashman’s lyrics for “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.

But back to “Come Back to Me

This is fiendishly clever. The double rhyming of “date” and “wait” along with “below” and “Godot” is terrific (although nowadays that play’s title character is more often pronounced with the accent on the first syllable as opposed to the last — but whatever). The song’s last lyric is my favorite:

E.J. Korvette, also known as Korvette’s, was a department store that first opened in New York City in 1948, then expanded out to the ever-growing post-war suburbs, even for a time giving the mighty Macy’s a run for its money. Poor Korvette’s died in 1980, pre-deceasing Macy’s other chief rival, the now defunct Gimbels, by seven years. But in 1965 when Lerner and Lane composed this song, Korvette’s was at its zenith, while the Mets (the New York Metropolitans), a relatively new franchise team that began in 1962, was the single worst team in all of major league baseball. And of course, the line “don’t give up cigarettes” referred to the dilemma which brought the character of Daisy to the good doctor in the first place. That line remained whether it was sung by Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr. (often singing live with a cigarette in their hands, for added effect).

If you have the time, here are my three favorite versions of the song, differentiated by the unforced musical originality of Sammy Davis Jr., the virility and drive of Robert Goulet, and the marvelous lyric interpretation of Alan Jay Lerner, the man who wrote it. Enjoy.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: