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To Honor The Shortest Day of the Year

To Honor The Shortest Day of the Year

On December 21 -- which is the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight – why not play “The Shortest Day of the Year”?

It’s the song that can be found about halfway through The Boys from Syracuse. Richard Rodgers wrote the melody that Lorenz Hart set to lyrics for their 1938 musical hit.

It has a nice message: “The shortest day of the year” by definition “has the longest night of the year.” But the character who’s singing the song realizes that “the longest night is the shortest night with you.” That’s how much he’s in love.

Rodgers always had a penchant for writing what became known in the trade as “wrong notes.” They’re the ones that untutored ears don’t expect to hear because they don’t go in the musical direction that they’re “supposed” to. And yet, when you hear them, they’re as delicious as bittersweet chocolate. “Yup,” you’ll say with a quick nod of the head. “That Rodgers knew what he was doing.” Here it happens on the word “year,” once in each of the first two lines.

The song has at least one esteemed fan, as I learned during the Richard Rodgers Centenary in 2002. My editor had asked me to call noted composers and lyricists and ask them to name their favorite Rodgers song. Charles Strouse, of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie fame, didn’t hesitate for a second, but immediately said “The Shortest Day of the Year.”

Funny; after I hum or whistle the first two A-sections of this song, I always seem to follow them with the B-section from “The Strongest Man in the World,” a song that Strouse and Lee Adams wrote for their Superman musical. I find the two dovetail nicely. Considering Strouse’s admiration for “The Shortest Day of the Year,” did he purposely follow the same harmonic structure or write an inadvertent homage?

One thing’s for certain: The way that The Boys from Syracuse happened is one of musical theater’s endearing stories. On a train to Atlantic City, Rodgers and Hart started discussing ideas for new musicals. The idea of musicalizing a play by Shakespeare was particularly intriguing to the collaborators for the obvious reason: no one had ever tried it. (All right, some Frenchmen did do Cymbeline, but Rodgers and Hart didn’t know that at the time.)

As they went through the canon, The Comedy of Errors immediately appealed to Hart. It’s the story of two sets of identical twins separated not long after birth: the Antipholus Brothers and their servants, the Dromio Brothers. Two wound up in Syracuse, while the other two landed in Ephesus.

And that made Hart think about his own brother.

Teddy Hart was an actor who’d appeared in the smash hits Three Men on a Horse and Room Service. He constantly complained to his brother that he was being mistaken for another actor named Jimmy Savo. (Savo, as it turned out, had the same grievance.) Given that both were on the short side, wouldn’t they be ideal for the two Dromios, the servants to the Antipholus twins – one of whom, incidentally, was played by Eddie Albert, the future Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres.

They chose as their title The Boys from Syracuse, which had a sly double meaning: the term was often used to describe the Shubert Brothers, the theater magnates who originally hailed from that Empire State metropolis known as “The Salt City” (and not just because the Shuberts rubbed salt in quite a few wounds). Were the brothers not happy with the reference? All we know is that The Boys from Syracuse booked the Alvin, a non-Shubert house. (It’s now the Neil Simon.)

This time, Rodgers and Hart planned not only to write the score, but also collaborate on the libretto with George Abbott, their director-producer. Abbott, however, immediately went to work on the script and finished so quickly that there was nothing left for Rodgers and Hart to do.

But would Hart have been up to more responsibility? He had more than enough in just providing lyrics. From many reports (especially Rodgers’), Hart was increasingly unhappy, alcoholic and unreliable. Being under five feet tall and homosexual made him feel unmanly. Five years to the day of The Boys from Syracuse’s last preview, Hart would die at a very premature 48.

As frustrated as Rodgers was with Hart, the composer gladly gave him his due as a lyricist. Exhibit A: in the midst of a meeting that the two were having with Abbott, Hart managed during the chat to write the verse of “Falling in Love with Love.” And for all the talk of how discontented a person he was, one must admit that he looked at the bright side when writing of being incarcerated in “Come with Me.”
(“The food is free … the landlord never comes near …”)

What’s more, Hart’s knowledge of the shady life allowed him to find a terrific image in “Dear Old Syracuse.” Antipholus of Syracuse sings “When the search for love becomes a mania, you can take the night boat to Albania.” Many a guffaw must have come from the male audience members, for at that time there was “The Night Boat to Albany” which left New York circa 8 p.m., sailed to the state capital, then turned around and returned to Manhattan circa 8 a.m. Who would want to take such a dull trip in the dark, you ask? Husbands who had girlfriends and who didn’t have the marriage license then necessary to check into hotels, that’s who.

Because The Boys from Syracuse was produced before the original cast album era, listeners were deprived of hearing most of the Rodgers and Hart score. Oh, they had heard its two most famous songs endlessly recorded and sung – “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” But where was the rest of it?

The void was filled in 1954, after Columbia Records cast album guru Goddard Lieberson had teamed with musical conductor Lehman Engel to make studio cast albums of vintage shows. The Boys from Syracuse easily made the list.

Fans of Jack Cassidy will prefer this recording of The Boys from Syracuse over the three that have since been made. After all, he sings the songs sung not only by Antipholus of Syracuse but also Antipholus of Ephesus. Stanley Prager does double duty, too, as both Dromios. (Well, why not, given that they’re all supposed to be identical twins?)

The musical theater convention of one serious couple alternating with a comic one was very much in place in The Boys from Syracuse. Dromio of Ephesus was a married man, much to his chagrin – although his wife Luce wasn’t so happy, either. “What Can You Do with a Man?” she drones, complaining that he was avoiding his husbandly duties. Considering that Luce was established as a heavy-set character, when she sang about “Acres and acres of beauty going to waste,” audiences could also hear that line as “Acres and acres of beauty going to waist.”

Here, along with Prager, is one of musical theater unsung heroines: Bibi Osterwald. She was Carol Channing’s understudy in both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! and appeared with the star in The Vamp. Aside from her work with Channing, Osterwald appeared in The Golden Apple, where she sang of a lagoon -- honest. If you don’t know her, The Boys from Syracuse shows her insouciance, as does the lovely film The World of Henry Orient.

Most shows are lucky if they get one good eleven o’clock number. The Boys from Syracuse got two, and in this recording, Osterwald was involved in both. She shares “Sing for Your Supper” with Portia Nelson and Holly Harris, who respectively played the wives to the Antipholi. The style certainly doesn’t seem to be an ancient Grecian formula; instead, it’s that close harmony that was heard from sister acts and girl groups in the ‘30s. Handling the song this way was the brainchild of just-starting-out vocal arranger Hugh Martin, whom we now know as the composer of Make a Wish. His success here landed him seventeen more Broadway assignments as vocal arranger.

Osterwald gets the final eleven o’clocker on her own: Luce’s “Oh, Diogenes!” is her plea to the Greek who went hunting for an honest man; if he ever finds one, she pleads, “Wrap him up for me!” The song always demanded an encore; so did “Sing for Your Supper.” Enjoy your own by pressing the “repeat” button.

Many people think of the Dream Ballet as something that started with Oklahoma! Hardly. The Boys from Syracuse had one, for in those days when you had George Balanchine on hand, you got a ballet. Balanchine was, after all, the first person known by the new-fangled term “choreographer.”

Here, Lehman Engel conducts the ballet, presumably with the original orchestrations that Hans Spialek created. This album features most of the charts that Spialek did (although he got by with a little help from his orchestrator friends).

This recording of The Boys from Syracuse weighs in at a little under fifty-five minutes. That may seem to be a brief time to spend with a cast album in the CD era. But don’t forget – you’ll be playing it during the shortest day of the year.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.