Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ONCE UPON A TIME

Charles Strouse, born on this date in 1928, turns ninety years old today. His more than 30 stage musicals, including 14 for Broadway, contain some of my personal favorite songs written for the theatre. A salute to his talents on this special birthday is surely in order.

I clearly remember when I first discovered his music. Not only did I love the film of Bye Bye Birdie from the time it came out in 1963 (I was six), but the hit number from that show, "Put On a Happy Face" was the theme song for The Hollywood Palace, a TV variety show that I was glued to every Saturday night from the time it premiered in 1964 (and still go to YouTube to listen to its orchestral arrangement that opened and closed the show each week). It was also used as the theme song for Chuck McCann's syndicated kid's show Let's Have Fun, which was a huge part of my childhood. As the song still brings me undiluted joy whenever I hear it, Charles Strouse pretty much had me at "hello."

Charles Strouse, born on this date ninety years ago.

Continuing his rich bio, Strouse's official website boasts the following: "He has also composed scores for five Hollywood films, two orchestral works and an opera. He has been inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame. He is a three–time Tony Award winner, a two–time Emmy Award winner, and his cast recordings have earned him two Grammy Awards. His song "Those Were the Days" launched over 200 episodes of All in the Family and continues to reach new generations of television audiences in syndication. With hundreds of productions licensed annually, his musicals Annie and Bye Bye Birdie are among the most popular of all time."

Bye Bye Birdie star Dick Van Dyke, greeted by Charles Strouse, on its opening night (1960).

Of course, for every Bye Bye Birdie or Annie, there was A Broadway Musical or Dance a Little Closer (two Strouse musicals that, sadly, closed on their opening nights). But if he had his share of flops alongside his hits, who cares? So did every other major Broadway composer in the 20th century. As everyone knows, no one sets out to make a bad show. You get the breaks or you get broken, and Strouse was no stranger to any of that.

Case in point was All American, Strouse’s next musical after Birdie. Once again re-teaming with lyricist Lee Adams, they brought on board a new book writer, a mutual friend named Mel Brooks, a TV comedy writer with limited theatre experience, who turned out to be less than ideal (according to most sources, he never wound up finishing Act II of of the show). An adaptation of a novel titled Professor Fodorski, by Robert Lewis Taylor, All American attempted a satirical look at the immigrant experience from the point of view of a Hungarian professor who comes to America to teach at a small southern college. Opening two years after Birdie’s freshmen success, All American lent credence to the fearsome “sophomore jinx,” closing in less than two months. Its fate was pretty much assured by Howard Taubman in the New York Times, when he wrote: “With a stage full of targets in sight, All American has managed the amazing feat of hitting none.”

Ray Bolger as Prof. Fodorski in All American (1962).

Still, All American has some wonderful songs in it, especially the ballad "Once Upon a Time." Written quickly in Philadelphia to replace a scene that wasn't working between the show's two leads (Ray Bolger and Eileen Herlie), Strouse and Adams were thrilled when Tony Bennett decided to record it. It was to be the "A" side on a 45 record, only it didn't turn out that way. "Once Upon a Time" got no attention, but when DJs flipped the record over, it was the "B" side, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," that captured the hearts of listeners, becoming a huge hit and winning the 1962 Grammy for Record of the Year (don't cry for Strouse and Adams: for every record sold they got the same residual payments as George Cory and Douglass Cross did for "San Francisco"). Eventually, "Once Upon a Time" got recorded by other artists, thus finding its rightful place as a standard.

Two Strouse and Adams musicals followed in the mid-1960s, Golden Boy and It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman. And