BWW Reviews: ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL 2014: THE SONGS THAT GOT AWAY: THE MUSIC OF HAROLD ARLEN Presents Songs of a Forgotten Man
Reviewed Thursday 10th June 2014
Johanna Allen makes another very welcome trip home to Adelaide to present the marvellous music of Harold Arlen, and her many fans were out in force to see her latest cabaret show, The Songs That Got Away: The Music Of Harold Arlen. Although his songs are very well known, and have been sung by some of the biggest names in the business, it seems that few know his name, and often mistakenly attribute his songs to other better known composers. Johanna Allen attempts to set the record straight and give him the recognition that he deserves.
With the help of director, Stuart Maunder, and musical director and accompanist, Michael Tyack, Allen has put together a few of more than 500 songs that Arlen wrote between 1930 and 1970. They are all familiar but, if asked who wrote any of them, only a few would be able to answer correctly.
This is, of course from an Australian's perspective and one would hope that he was more readily recognised in his homeland. He is, after all, in the Composers Hall of Fame and one of his songs, which also won an Oscar, was named the Number One Song of the Century. It was written for a film, but was rejected several times before finally being accepted by the producers. What was the song that they were going to drop from his score for the film? Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.
Arlen was born Hymen Arluck (1905-1986), the son of a Jewish cantor, and kept his own name until he was 23, after he moved to New York and began playing in vaudeville bands. He wrote individual songs, shows for the Cotton Club, film scores, and Broadway shows. Many of his songs are included in what is known as the Great American Songbook. He worked with some of the greatest lyricists, including E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields and Truman Capote.
Allen's narrative tells of his personal life, his friends and family, the people that he worked with, and brings to light some of the less palatable social mores of the time, including segregation and racial vilification, as well as human rights activism. In doing so she reminds us that, among her many skills, she is an actress, having trained at the Actors Studio in New York on top of her BA in Drama. She adopts a wide range of characters along the way.
Allen is classically trained, with a BMus (hons) from the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide and voice studies at Julliard, and her superb voice attests to this, but she has performed in cabaret, opera, musical theatre and just about any musical form that you care to mention. That experience shows in the polished performance, and the ease with which she moves through this music, based largely in jazz and blues. In so doing, she demonstrates why these songs have become classics, and are still being sung all over the world so many decades later.
One might then ask what some of those songs were, and there are plenty to choose from. Allen opens with Any Place I Hang my Hat is Home and announces, in character, that we are at the Cotton Club in 1933, where Arlen's music could often be heard. She follows up quickly with another hit, Blues in the Night, adding a nice growl to her rendition Hallelujah, Come on Get Happy, Stormy Weather, One for My Baby, That Old Black Magic, The Man That Got Away, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, added to the string of well known songs, made famous by some of the greatest names like Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Ethel Waters, and Judy Garland.
If you are a fan of the Marx Brothers, you'd have heard Groucho sing another of his songs, Lydia the Tattooed Lady. Not everything that he wrote was entirely serious. Some that weren't included, such as One for my Baby, took a very prominent role through association. That particular number became synonymous with Frank Sinatra.
Allen's depth of research and understanding of the era and the people in her narrative is clear, as is her affection for the songs and their composer. Each one gets a thoughtful and musically wonderful interpretation, the collaboration between Allen and Tyack proving exceptionally productive. This was a carefully planned collection of songs, showing the wide variety of music that Arlen gave to the world, and it left the audience wanting more of both the music and Johanna Allen, as the standing ovation showed.