BWW Review: SONGWRITER TRIBUTES Glow Affectionately at 92nd Street Y
Two prolific writers who put the "Great" in "The Great American Songbook" were celebrated and explored in the same week at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y. In different presentations, there were embraces of the legacies of lyricist E.Y. ("Yip") Harburg and composer/lyricist Cole Porter, both born in the 1890s, both finding their first successes beyond the precocious age, but leaving work that lasted the ages.
With a three-day run ending with both matinee and evening Monday shows (January 27), the choice of Harburg is certainly appropriate to launch the Y's LYRICS & LYRICISTS concert series this year. The valuable program is celebrating its 50th anniversary season and the whole tradition began with that very lyricist taking the stage himself to talk about and perform his material, along with guests. This time around, the late wordsmith was only glimpsed in the briefest of film clips from that program of yore, but his recollections and other historical notes were read by the five singers on the bill. (Unlike the typical L&L show, there was no additional host to speak, nor was there a voiceover announcer naming the performers at any point. Sometimes identifications of song titles, collaborators, and the name of the original Broadway or film score was projected on the screen.) Sequencing was not strictly chronological, as the concert began with one number from the score of Finian's Rainbow, written with composer Burton Lane, which was otherwise handled after intermission and the surefire generous look at iconic material from The Wizard of Oz with Harold Arlen's melodies was slotted to end the first half. Almost all of the repertoire from various other scores represented also had music by the aforementioned collaborators, although Harburg wrote with many others along the way.
True to the series' original mission to bring a spotlight and perspective to songwriting craft and the motivations and mindsets of the creators, context was delivered. A discussion of the struggle to find just the right words and feel for melodic phrases in "Over the Rainbow" was instructive, but not pedantic. The dramatic impact of the singing of the Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," however, was somewhat diluted by those sung sections alternating with the spoken background information. Directed by Matt Kunkel, all the vocalists were game, professional, polished, and competent. The event is subtitled "Follow the Fellow Who Follows a Dream," a nod to both Harburg's idealism and the line from "Look to the Rainbow" (advice from the character of Finian to his daughter); Laura Darrell's wistful, invested rendition of this and the same musical's "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" were major highlights. Mikaela Bennett was cozily sincere on two romantic ballads and Megan Sikora was the assigned energizer, hard-selling the struts and gags of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and "Napoleon." Clifton Duncan impressed by taking on the songs of the Cowardly Lion from that land of Oz without resorting to the tricks and tics or ham of originator Bert Lahr. Nick Spangler's tender treatment of "Where Have I Seen Your Face Before?"--- the Harburg/Lane swan song-- was lovely, made all the more effective as sung in front of a projected photo of the man of the hour. In recital mode in the large auditorium, some things came off with more formality than the potential of warmth and/or wit in the words. By contrast, attempts to suggest looseness or a bit of audience sing-along bits seemed a bit forced. The assignment of "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block" surprised me in going to the two men in the group as the shows I've seen in this series tend to pair singers heterosexually for songs referencing coupledom.
While entertaining and bringing plenty of escapist delights, Harburg's firm ideas concerning progressive politics got much weight, too, in the script by Jon Marans. They even included special Yip lyrics name-dropping specific US presidents, with the added spoken query wondering what he might have written about the current situations. Harburg's losses of Hollywood opportunities resulting from his being blacklisted as a possible Communist were discussed, too. (Did you know that he otherwise would have worked on the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born and Huckleberry Finn, among others?)
Pianist/conductor/orchestrator Paul Masse and the five musicians joining him emphasized the grace and liveliness of melodies, while giving the lyrics in the spotlight room to breathe. Later in the year, the series will salute Jerry Herman, George Gershwin, Stephen Schwartz, and more.
......moving on to another consideration of another songmaster....
What's the perfect time and place for Cole Porter's romance-drenched or sly songs? Maybe you'd ideally linger at piano bars or late cabaret shows to listen and ruminate. Can you imagine settling in with fellow admirers to do the same in the cold light of the day? Shall we cue Porter's included sassy retort-filled "But in the Morning, No!"? Yes? But it is just at the moment when morning ends (Start Time: High Noon!) that the 92nd Street Y brings in even late-risers for some eye-opening trips down musical memory lanes. The mood is somewhat informal and casual, the performances held in classrooms, the listeners on folding chairs, the lights overhead are fluorescent, and there's no stage. But who needs such things when you have a piano, savvy singers, great material, and interesting related anecdotes ready to be related? At the keyboard and ready to croon a noon tune the other day was a man who's long known his way around (and inside) many Cole Porter songs: the veteran bon vivant Steve Ross. And he brought a fine guest vocalist along: Karen Murphy.
More famous faves like "You're the Top" (his solo) were mixed with rare fare such as "Pets" (her solo) and, despite the hour, their evocative duet on "In the Still of the Night" and his deft piano touch on this touching classic still produced audible sighs. Raconteur Ross detailed the doings of the ancient gods that drive the plot of the musical Out of This World, making the three numbers from that score especially appreciated and spirited. An obvious devotee of the writer's work, he cutely quipped at one point that he always sleeps with the massive tome The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter under his pillow. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised. Early on, he talked about the mastery of the art of writing List Songs and demonstrated some sterling examples. In addition to List Songs, what he terms Lust Songs were on the agenda, suggesting the suggestive type for our blushing approval. And the twosome brought some spice and flair to "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," which could make anyone not already converted fall in love with Porter's cleverness. But it seemed to me that the audience this day was mostly already in the fan club. Merry Mr. Ross had already observed, "I can tell you are a group of people riddled with sophistication."
Another noontime look at songwriter giants at the Y brings the focus to Irving Berlin on February 13.
See www.92y.org for the many events at this venue.