By Peter Filichia
Quite often during the month of October, I start thinking of George Cooper’s poem “October’s Party.”
You’re pardoned if you don’t know it. It was the poem I chose to memorize in seventh grade when Sister Monicella (doncha love those old nuns’ pseudonyms?) demanded that we memorize one. With “only” twenty-four lines “October’s Party” was one of the shortest in our textbooks, so I was off and memorizing.
“October gave a party,” it began. “The leaves by hundreds came: the chestnuts, oaks, and maples and leaves of every name. The sunshine spread a carpet, and everything was grand. Miss Weather led the dancing, Professor Wind the band.”
Well, you get the point. It’s a tribute to nature with a lot of pathetic fallacy. (I’m not being judgmental; “pathetic fallacy” is the poetic term for attributing human emotions or characteristics to inanimate objects or to nature.)
Okay, let’s have our own “October’s Party” with original, revival and studio cast albums that celebrate the Great Outdoors, too. We’ll go
Movin’ Out (which opened Oct, 24, 2002) to shows like Girl Crazy. It takes us to Custerville, Arizona and San Luz, Mexico. Alas, when the show opened on Oct. 14, 1930, original cast albums were more than a dozen years away, so we can’t exactly hear how Ethel Merman sounded right then and there in “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me” or in her much celebrated “I Got Rhythm.” We could also use “Could You Use Me?” “But Not for Me” and “Embraceable You” from Ginger Rogers. But twenty-one years later, Lehman Engel conducted Mary Martin to sing many of their songs and that’s quite a nice compensation.
You’d expect a musical called Jamaica (Oct. 31, 1957) to take place in Jamaica. Well, yes and no. Actually, we’re on Pigeon Island, a mythical spot not far from its mainland. To make matters more confusing, Jamaica’s first song celebrates Savannah. But it’s not the city in South Carolina that’s being honored; Savannah is the name of the main character that Lena Horne played in this Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg hit.
But South Carolina is of course represented in Porgy and Bess (Oct. 10, 1935). How nice that there’s now a new recording to commemorate its 75th anniversary. Under Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s baton, the three-disc set was recorded last year at his Styriarte Festival in Graz, Austria. Jonathan Lemalu played Porgy, Isabelle Kabatu portrayed Bess and Bibiana Nwobilo was Clara. Harnoncourt’s recording isn’t as complete as the 1977 three-disc Houston Grand Opera production that wended its way to Broadway; Harnoncourt made the cuts that George Gershwin himself made when the show was still running on Broadway.
That 1977 production won a Tony®. It was the first year that the awards acknowledged that there was such a thing as a “Best Revival,” although that first year it was called “Most Innovative Production of a Revival.” Many feel that this Porgy and Bess was the reason the award was conceived; no one could let the grandeur of both the work and production go unrewarded.
Also south of the border down Caribbean way is Once on This Island (Oct. 19, 1990), set in the French Antilles. Stephen Flaherty’s steel-drum-infused music and Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics represent one of the strongest scores in recent decades. “We Dance” sing the Storytellers at the top of the show – and you might well too for the entire length of the disc.
Goldilocks (Oct. 11, 1958) does not take place in the home of The Three Little Pigs, but mostly in outdoor locations in New York – even the not-particularly-well-known Huckleberry Island. Standing there and freezing is Goldilocks — the name that movie director Max Grady (Don Ameche) gave to Maggie Harris (Elaine Stritch). It’s the early days of silent movies and Max is sure he can make Maggie a star. Alas, while he’s filming her in this picture set in an Egyptian desert, snow suddenly starts to fall on New York. No wonder everyone went Hollywood.
Leroy Anderson’s music is thoroughly enjoyable, starting with a nice operetta pastiche of Maggie’s “Lazy Moon.” One has to wonder, however, if Anderson recycled any of his music from Wonderful Town which he was writing — until Leonard Bernstein replaced him. The answer is probably not, for Anderson’s score to Wonderful Town was said to be not very good and the music to Goldilocks is quite wonderful. Don’t miss Stritch’s torch song “I Never Know When (to say when),” one of the best eleven o’clock numbers in musical theater history.
Let It Ride (Oct. 12, 1961) deals with gamblers who like the ponies (which is why Sam Levine, the original Nathan Detroit in
Guys and Dolls, was chosen to co-star). Most of the action takes place in a suburban home, an office and a seedy hotel room. But near the end of the musical, we’re at a racetrack where we’ll see “If Flutterby Wins.” Don’t miss the song that comes just before: George Gobel sings one of musical theater’s least-known beautiful songs: “His Own Little Island.”
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
(Oct. 14, 1961) is almost entirely in offices, but it begins outside World Wide Wickets headquarters where window-washer J. Pierrepont Finch sings the quasi-title song, “How To.” Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser was a genius but even he would have had trouble setting all eight words of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying to music.
Here’s Love (Oct. 3, 1963) starts with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where everyone enjoys “The Big Calown Balloons.” (That’s not a typo; songwriter Meredith Willson added an extra syllable to the word “clown.” Wish I could explain why.) The parade takes the first nine-and-a-half minutes of the disc and returns us to the days when Broadway orchestras had plenty of musicians on brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion. (I’ll have a lot more to say about
Here’s Love when it’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas – a song, in fact, you can hear in Here’s Love.)
For those who already miss summer, 110 in the Shade (Oct. 24, 1963) can take them back to scorching times. Residents in Three Point, Texas come out of their homes to find it’s “Gonna Be Another Hot Day.” It’s the Fourth of July, but there may not be much of an Independence Day celebration with the weather being too darn hot. Soon there’s a great deal more hot air when a self-proclaimed “rainmaker” named Starbuck comes to town to promise “a good Old Testament wade-in-the-water, shouting glory rain.” But he certainly gets a different kind of fireworks going on this Independence Day.
Take Me Along (Oct. 22, 1959) celebrates Independence Day, too, where the jaunty title song is sung by two men not immediately identified for their musical theater prowess — Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon – but who do quite nicely in the title song. (That is, if you can excuse Gleason’s singing the wrong lyric, one that doesn’t rhyme. Listen for it.) And there’s one more musical Independence Day celebration, although it takes place not on July 4 but on May 14 — for that’s the date (in 1948) that the State of Israel was born. Milk and Honey (Oct. 10, 1961) remembers it well.
Most of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Oct. 17, 1965) happens indoors, but Daisy Gamble does manage to get out “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn.” But Anything Goes (Oct. 19, 1987) spends all of its time on a ship. That includes “Friend-ship” (A lahdle-ahdle-addle dig dig dig) in this Lincoln Center revival.
Finally, if you’re even a little bored with all the places we’ve gone, there’s still one enchanting locale left. It’s not on any chart; you must find it with your heart. Or you can simply hear all about “Neverland” via Mary Martin on the original Broadway cast album of Peter Pan
(Oct. 20, 1954).
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com