“The American Theatre ’64: Its Problems & Promise.”
So read the cover of the Feb. 22, 1964 issue of SATURDAY REVIEW.
With its fifty-sixth anniversary coming up later this week – which ironically will again be a Saturday – let’s review its four-page article called “The American Musical – 1964.”
It offered a survey that, as its theater critic Henry Hewes decreed, “took almost three years to complete.” Forty-three Broadway composers and lyricists were asked to name their favorite songs they’d written as well as their favorites written by others. All were also requested to give some insight when answering the question “How do the requirements for today’s musicals differ from those at the time you began your career?”
Forty-two participated. Only Leonard Bernstein declined, “explaining he feels out of touch with musical comedy since being called up by The New York Philharmonic.”
Really? This was right around the time when Bernstein started writing a musical version of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Maybe he felt he’d better work on that rather than answer the survey. Sadly, less than a year later, they’d abandon the project.
(Perhaps SATURDAY REVIEW should have contacted him then.)
The songwriters were listed in order of their birth, starting with Otto Harbach (Aug. 18, 1873) and ending with the one who was then the new kid on the block: Jerry Herman (July 10, 1931). At the moment, Herman was not just flying sky-high, but out-of-the-earth’s-orbit-high with his musical that had opened to raves five weeks earlier: HELLO, DOLLY!
We’d be in our rights to assume that Herman filled out the survey before DOLLY, for he said his favorite composition was “Shalom” from MILK AND HONEY. His favorites by others include one that might surprise you: “How Can I Wait?” from PAINT YOUR WAGON. He also added “almost anything by Frank Loesser.” While we can easily agree with him, we must remember Herman’s gratitude to Loesser, who saw both Mrs. Herman and her teenaged son and listened to the kid’s compositions. Herman never forgot his good words of encouragement and graciousness.
Loesser listed “Chopsticks” as one of his six favorites written by others. Well, he DID write the lyrics for “Heart and Soul,” which became another favorite piano exercise. FOREVER PLAID included the song and even brought a person from the audience on stage to play the right-hand part while one of the four Plaids concurrently played what was left. It’s one of the most delightful cuts on the original cast album.
Jule Styne said his own favorites were “Just in Time” from BELLS ARE RINGING and “Neverland” from PETER PAN. Good choices both – but aren’t we at least a little shocked that he didn’t choose something from GYPSY?
Stephen Sondheim did. He listed “Some People” when asked to pick his favorite composition and made no other choice. That’s a surprise, for it’s a song for which he’d only penned lyrics. Considering that by that point Sondheim had written both music and lyrics for one hit (FUNNY THING HAPPENED) and one upcoming show (ANYONE CAN WHISTLE) – and made clear that that was the way he wanted his career to go from then on – we would have expected that he’d choose a song for which he’d provided every note and syllable.
You may recall – or have heard – that twenty years ago THE NEW YORK TIMES asked Sondheim to name “Songs I Wish I Had Written (Or at Least in Part).” How many of the six he mentioned in 1964 survived the cut thirty-six years later? Four: “Birth of the Blues,” “Buds Won’t Bud,” “The Song Is You” and “Spring Is Here.”
That last one is nice to see, for it has music by Richard Rodgers, not yet the Sondheim foe he’d become in a year via DO I HEAR A WALTZ? on which they wrangled. Give Sondheim credit for separating the work from the man.
PORGY AND BESS was still represented on Sondheim’s list, although he’d replaced “I Loves You, Porgy” with “My Man’s Gone Now.” He’d dumped Cole Porter’s “Get out of Town,” too, but at least he put three Porter selections on the later list.
Marc Blitzstein listed five songs by others that he’d admired, topping the list with “Mack the Knife.” Yes, Blitzstein would like that one, for he’d had a great success with his adaptation of the show that opened with “Mack the Knife”: THE THREEPENNY OPERA. At that time, it was the longest-running production in off-Broadway history.
What’s very sad is that Blitzstein didn’t live to see his colleagues’ opinions in the magazine; a month to the day before the survey was published, he was murdered.
The song that got the most mentions was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are” from a 1939 flop called VERY WARM FOR MAY. Only Lionel (OLIVER!) Bart and Robert Emmett (FOXY) Dolan gave the answer that I would have: “Soliloquy” from CAROUSEL.
As for those requirements for new musicals, Odgen Nash, ever the wag, said “$200,000 more.” The other respondents took the question seriously. How they viewed the songwriting standards of the day shows a substantial difference from today’s Broadway.
Arthur Schwartz: “It’s harder to write freshly today, but it is more than ever demanded.” Arnold Horwitt: “The scores have to integrate with the book and not merely be good songs.” Richard Rodgers: “There is a demand for subject matter that is less superficial than it used to be.” Jerry Herman: “The composer-lyricist of today must be a playwright in every sense of the word.”
And how about this from Sondheim: “The audiences are becoming more sophisticated and less enthusiastic.” Yes, 1964 was years before the automatic standing ovation and the advent of “Whoo!” became de rigueur. Both have now shattered Sondheim’s assessments of sophistication and enthusiasm.
How sad to read Jerry Bock’s statement “Sheldon (Harnick) and I … do look forward to making progress in our own work.” They did in their next four musicals, but they never collaborated on another, to their detriment and ours.
Carolyn Leigh, who’d written marvelous lyrics for WILDCAT and LITTLE ME (both with terrific Cy Coleman music) was, as usual, witty: “The number of ‘answers’ you think you know is inversely proportionate to the number of shows you do.”
E. Y. Harburg was a bit cantankerous: “There is no excellent songwriting today … there are some fair songs but nothing for the catalogue of time.”
Really, Mr. H? At that moment in time, Broadway audiences were hearing (in addition to the aforementioned HELLO, DOLLY!) HOW TO SUCCEED, 110 IN THE SHADE, THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER and OLIVER! among many others. Only eight months away was FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, which has stood the test of time. So has the score for the musical that opened the following year (MAN OF LA MANCHA) and the one that debuted the year after that (CABARET).
The season after that brought us one that SHOULD be as well-known as those, but a troubled production doomed it: DARLING OF THE DAY, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by – why, no less than E.Y. Harburg. The score is, to paraphrase one of his own lyrics in the musical, enough to make a person fall in love.