Monday, July 18, 2011

Carousel Part 4

(May I also recommend my daughter Natania's latest efforts, found at


The song is ended, but the melody lingers on/You and the night are gone/But the melody lingers on....... Irving Berlin, the unlettered writer of song and verse, could get to the heart of an emotion quicker than most and with astonishing ease. "Carousel" is officially over, even the cast party is history. The nights are gone, yet I'm still waking up with the melodies of R&H's "......when I marry Mr. Snow (what a day, what a day)...." vibrating through the windy tunnels of my mind.

After the difficulties at our Wed. matinee (chronicled in the previous article), just about everything that followed went as smooth as smooth can be (that could have been a line that Hammerstein wrote, but didn't). The crowd for Wed. evening was small but enthusiastic; Thurs. evening and the Sun. performance in Ra'anana was almost full; the final performance, the following Wed. evening, was absolutely sold out, with people vying for seats that didn't exist. Some of us felt like getting up on the stage and berating the crowd: "shmigeggies, where were you last Wed. when you could have had your choice of good seats instead of sitting two feet from the double bass player?" But that's how people are, I've noticed. The only mishap I feel obliged to mention was at the performance in Ra'anana when Jerry somehow fell on his head coming on stage for the beginning of the second act and was momentarily unconscious. He recovered in time to rejoin the troupe, but I got to sit on his stool during the 'clam bake.'

It's difficult, almost impossible, to describe what a cast party is like. OK. People bringing food and eating it, everyone understands. Saying goodbye to people you've worked with, everyone understands. But the camaraderie, the in-jokes, the spoofs and parodies that are put together to pay tribute to those who deserve it: mostly the folks who are never on stage and don't get to take a bow or sing an encore (itself an indescribable moment), and to give tokens of esteem (carousel related) to those same worthies -- most of that effect cannot be encapsulated in print, and, even if it were, wouldn't make sense to the casual reader. Yes, Jerry recited "I do not like green eggs and clams," and once you recall that we're singing "This was a real nice clam bake/We're mighty glad we came......." as Act 2 opens, the parody makes perfect sense; but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Suppose someone videoed the few minutes when Zvi got up, thanked everyone, and sang a song, would anyone understand what was going on? You'd have to know that Zvi, with no theatrical experience at all, came to the audition and was given the part of Jigger Craigin, the evil instigator. You'd have to know that throughout the rehearsals Zvi was concerned about his Israeli accent, and how a number of us told him not to worry, he would be fine -- which he was.

The videotape, however, would not reveal what was going on in my mind as Zvi was performing, guitar in hand, "More than you know/More than you know/ Man (gal) of my heart I love you so........." It was obvious that the song was part of Zvi's repertoire, that he had sung it before an audience many times before. But I was wondering whether Rob or somebody else would ask me about the song's provenance, who wrote it and when. To which I would have had to answer, more than I know. My best guess at the time would have been, right around 1930, not by any of the 'major' songwriting teams, and I know that Billie Holliday sang it, but she almost certainly wasn't the first. For whatever reason, nobody asked for my input, leaving Zvi to sing his song and receive a well-deserved hand from the crowd.

The next morning, I tiptoed to my laptop and started to 'google' frantically. Not bad indeed! "More Than You Know" was written in 1929 (close enough!), music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Edward Eliscu (a name unknown to most of my readers), with a credit to the impresario, Billy Rose. Not your 'A-team!' Where is the song from? The musical "Great Day," which also contained the song of the same title and another well regarded number, "Without a Song," and which lasted on Broadway for a few days. The song was originally sung by the now unknown performer, Mayo Methot. (Remember her name, and some day when you're in a situation where adult beverages are being served and some wise guy comes up and asks you, "Who was Humphrey Bogart's wife before he hooked up with Lauren Bacall?, you're in business.) Libby Holman, a highly regarded singer of her day, was the first to capitalize on the song's popularity in a performance (which you can hear if you listen with some frequency to Rich Conaty's "The Big Broadcast" on WFUV in NYC or on their website) that is completely over the top, and which Rob and Paul would deflate in two minutes. From what I gather, virtually every singer, from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland down to Pat Boone and Patti Page, has performed it at one time or another. ("Loving you the way that I do/There's nothing I can do about it/Loving may be all you can give/But darling I can't live without it......")

The thing I like most about 'The Great American Songbook,' that informal collection of 'standards,' is that it is a meritocracy. If you're a song, you get in because over the years singers want to sing you and audiences want to hear you -- no matter who wrote you, where you're from, or how old you are. If someone wants to sing you, they can do it without a cast of fifty, sets, props, or costumes. Even a piano or guitar will suffice for accompaniment -- as Zvi demonstrated. Thousands of songs, generally about three minutes long, most some variation on "I love you," have tried out, strutted their stuff, and have been found wanting, consigned to the dustbin of musical history, leaving the hardy survivors to be sung again and again.

Why has this song ("Whether you're right/Whether you're wrong/Man (gal) of my heart/I'll string along...") made the cut? The music isn't that magical, the lyrics all that clever; but the two seem to go together. Nothing high-falutin, overblown, trite, or mawkish. Maybe that's why. Maybe it's something else. As the policeman (Ronnie) said in act one, "Don't know. Wish I did."

There is something else I don't know, something more than I'll ever know about "Carousel." Why? Not why Rob, Paul, and Arlene decided to produce it. The music has a lot to recommend it, and that's a good enough reason. We did it well, and the audiences loved it. Why, however did R&H decide to turn a gloomy Hungarian drama by Ferenc Molnar into a musical? I've read some material on the topic and I still am none the wiser. Maybe the original character, Andreas Zavocky, is a more charismatic personality than Billy Bigelow, a typical small town jerk, who today would probably be diagnosed with some form of learning disability. Maybe the story line worked better in 1945 when spousal abuse was less of the big, fat no-no it is today. Maybe there was a time when Hammerstein's presentation of Billy's redemption wouldn't have seemed so contrived and patently ridiculous. Maybe people used to have more patience for this sort of thing than we do (with a forty minute ballet sequence, the original production must have run over three and a half hours). I know that Time Magazine named "Carousel" as the finest musical of the 20th century; but they also named Pierre Laval and Jimmy Carter as their "Person of the Year" in 1931 and 1976. I also am aware of the laudatory comments of Hammerstein's protégé, Steven Sondheim, to which I would respond, "high-falutin, overblown, trite, and mawkish."

Personally, I enjoyed every minute of the endeavor, from the first rehearsal to the closing night. I loved prancing around the stage, singing "Blow High, Blow Low (a-whaling we will go....), helping create the sets, listening to the awesome talent of my fellow thespians, and following the direction which Rob, Paul, and Arlene provided. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But if I had a choice between listening to 60,000 somewhat-sloshed fans of the Liverpool Football (soccer)Team, singing the team's anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone," or almost anybody singing the Youmans-Eliscu-Rose songbook, you know which one I'm going to opt for. "I need you so/More than you'll ever know...."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Carousel Part 3


Should you ever be in Maine -- and maybe you never will be; I never have -- you would see that the winters are wretchedly long and the summers are ever-to-short. Even down in New Jersey, I remember wondering if and when the graying snow piled in a heap in the high school parking lot across the way would finally melt. In such a situation the opening words of "June Is Busting Out All Over," are absolutely appropriate and are some of Hammerstein's cleverest lyrics:

"March went out like a lion, A-whippin' up the water in the bay.
Then April cried and stepped aside and along come pretty little May.
May was full of promises, But she didn't keep 'em quick enough fer some,
And a crowd of Doubtin' Thomases was predictin' that the summer'd never come......."

For the cast of Encore's "Carousel, June didn't really bust out at all. As long as it was March, April, or May, there was plenty of time before our first performance on June 21. However, there always comes a point when what wasn't, is, and now it was indeed the beginning of the sixth secular month. Time to get ready. The elaborately choreographed prologue on which Rob had lavished so much attention was coming together and actually making sense. All the players were available; just about all the scenery had been finished -- even the carousel.

Only someone who is somewhat deranged or totally dedicated to her craft would lavish so much time and energy on scenery which is used for at most eight minutes in a three hour production. Of course, what does that say about the mental competence of the rest of us, the small but dedicated crew of set painters who came to work every Friday morning when normal people would either be fussing over their Shabbat preparations or hanging out with a cup of hafuk (cappuccino) in some place like Tal's Bagels? Much of my efforts with a box-cutter would find realization in this scene, but there was one place in which my implement of choice would be useless: creating the carousel horses themselves. Six pieces of virgin plywood were sacrificed in this endeavor, Roxanne's outlines cut out by more skilled artisans with a jigsaw. Six of our most skilled volunteers were assigned to paint one horse apiece, each horse in several different colors. The finished products were then affixed to some long strips of wood -- also painted and wrapped in colored ribbons -- and the poles were then attached at the top to something else which was connected to something else, and this whole apparatus, festooned with ribbons and decorations from my cut cardboard, was attached by a pulley which could be raised and lowered on the Hirsch Theater stage. While it was on stage, the carousel would be discretely turned by the 'riders' during the final moments of the prologue when Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan are at last face to face.

The final few weeks before the show was set to open were the most demanding for all of us. In many ways, putting on a stage production is like making a movie. Let's say you're filming a screenplay in which the opening scene and the final scene twenty years later both are shot on the same little street near the Eiffel Tower. The actors involved will be dressed differently and made-up differently to show the passage of time, but the two scenes will be shot at the same time. Because movies are shot without regard for chronology or story line, it is quite possible that these actors may not know what the film is about until they see it screened.

The cast of "Carousel" may or may not know what the play is all about, but we certainly need to know when and from where we come on stage to do our bit. In effect, each scene has been rehearsed separately (just as every movie scene is shot separately), and now it would be time to put everything together, to start doing "run-throughs." Only now would the cast begin to understand where their parts fit into the collective. To complicate matters further, somewhere close to opening night, "The New Savoy Orchestra," the collection of musicians which Paul was able to assemble, would get involved, and the tempos played on the keyboard we had gotten used to were subtly changed, enough to throw off the singing and dancing. Adjustments, and more adjustments.

It was now "crunch time," one week to go before opening night. This is the time when you can expect to have a 'rehearsal from hell,' when everyone wonders how we would be ready for a live audience. (Actually we did already have a live audience -- just not a paying one. At this point, all of the non-actors who are essential in putting on a stage production began showing up: the people who create and keep track of the props, the folks who do makeup, the lighting technicians, the kids who help move the scenery, the sound crew, the young fellow and his assistant who would be responsible for projecting the over-titles in Hebrew.) Some of the cast members were still dropping or mangling lines. One of my buddies called out, "Are you all right, Captain Watson....." The problem was, he was Captain Watson. Rob pointed out this kind of mistake was elementary, my dear Watson. (Groan!!!!) In addition to cast members messing up their lines, the singing and the movement wasn't as fine-tuned as it needed to be, and the costumes needed work. However, the props were arriving. For months I had been walking around during the prologue with nothing in my hands. Finally........... my 'cotton candy' was ready. I have no idea what Chanie used to create it, but it looked like the real thing. No more would the actors have to whisper to me, "What are you 'selling,' again? Nothing like having and being the real McCoy. Now I could sell cotton candy with the best of them!

With a little more rehearsal time, most of the kinks were straightened out. One problem remained, however. The show was clearly too long, running a full three hours. If you're making a movie, the answer is simple: the offending pieces get left on the editing room floor. Whole scenes, whole characters can be judiciously excised -- and no one will be the wiser. Not so simple when it's a play with live actors and opening night was................. yesterday. Rob realized that cutting out parts of the dialogue or shortening certain songs was too problematic at this late stage in the game. The only alternative was to quicken the pace, get things moving faster. I can help!!!!!!!! I had one line of dialogue just before the "June is bustin' out all over" number. After one of the Jeff's asks 'Nettie Fowler' (Tamar), "Got any of them fried donuts ready yet?", I hopefully inquire, "How 'but some apple turnovers?" (my character, Rufus Snodgrass is big on apple turnovers). Up to now, I had been waiting about three seconds after Jeff's line to start mine. I figured I could cut it to one second without my line being lost. The cast in general took heed. We shaved ten minutes off the show time -- just by talking faster! There is a moral here somewhere.

Straightening out most of the kinks should be, and usually is, sufficient insurance against the dreaded 'performance from hell,' but it is no guarantee. Sometimes 'stuff' happens. We had done well on opening night; sales were good and we performed credibly. We certainly expected to do better the second time around. The next show, a Wednesday matinee, was well attended; at least most of the seats were sold -- although traditionally the matinee crowd tends to be an older, very polite (i.e., not given to spontaneous exhibitions of enthusiasm) crowd. We should have realized we were in trouble when two of the musicians hadn't shown up. One of them did arrive, one minute before curtain time. The other one never appeared; she thought the matinee performance was Thursday (which it had been in prior years). What to do? Paul had to improvise her part on the keyboard, something he is capable of doing. But why did so many of our otherwise nimble-footed thespians decide en masse to bang into the props and pieces of scenery in the wings and backstage during this particular performance? The clatter was heard in the auditorium, although that wasn't the biggest source of noise. Our usually staid and polite audience had become infatuated, nay, addicted, too their cell phones -- despite the usual admonition before the curtain rose to turn the blasted things off. One of the orchestra members advised that he heard at least fifteen such interruptions during this the course of this performance.

There is a scene in act 2 in which Enoch Snow (Jordan) and his intended, Carrie (Aviella) quarrel, and he starts storming off the stage. What should happen is this: Carrie is supposed to stop him and ask him to forgive her. He shakes his head. She asks him to "say something soft and sweet" to her; he declines. She asks him again, this time stomping her foot for emphasis. In exasperation, he turns to her and enunciates very carefully, "Boston Cream Pie." The cast (and perhaps the audience) reacts in consternation. Except that as this scene unfolded, the audience and the principals could hear the ring of a phone and then the unmistakable voice of a Jewish matron. "Hello, I'm at the theater......" Two hundred plus heads turned her way; the usherette came running down the aisle. On stage, the ball was dropped, the cue was missed, whatever. Before anyone realized what was happening, the irate suitor was off stage, without any of the aforementioned dialogue being spoken. Silence. Fortunately, Nettie (Tamar), realizing what had happened, continued with the lines she would have spoken later, enabling us to finish the scene and get off stage. if she hadn't done that, we might still be standing in place on stage at the Hirsch Theater, with our audience wondering why the show was taking so long -- in between conversations on their cell phones.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Carousel Part 2


This is a real question which a few people have asked me, not something I made up just so I could introduce the topic. "Fred, how do you decide what song to sing for an audition?" First of all, I have one simple general principle, which never fails me. Make yourself look good. How does that work in this context? Don't sing anything which ten other people might be doing the same evening -- like a song from the show you're auditioning for. Don't sing anything which Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, or Frank Sinatra has made famous; you won't sound as good. Do try something a little different; if nothing else, you will have the attention of the people you are auditioning for. Furthermore, sing something that fits your voice and your temperament.

All of the above helps you narrow down the list of possibilities; but you still have to decide on one song (One song, I have but one song/One song only for you..."Snow White, if you have forgotten). It does help if one song becomes insistent, insinuating itself in your brain and stomping around in it.

I am often thrilled when, out of the blue, somebody knows something that you wouldn't expect anyone to remember. We were getting ready to watch a DVD of the 1974 film version of "The Great Gatsby" (the one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, directed by Jack Clayburn). The movie opens with the camera moving through Jay Gatsby's now deserted mansion on Long Island, interspersed with shots of newspaper clippings and photographs of Daisy Buchanan. Then a male voice could be heard singing, "What'll I do when you/ are far away and I am blue/, What'll I do/What'll I do when I am wondering who/is kissing you/What'll I do/What'll I do with just a photograph/to tell my troubles to/When I'm alone/with only dreams of you/that won't come true/What'll I do."

What brilliant person thought of using that Irving Berlin song from exactly the same period to open the movie? Could anyone think of anything more appropriate? As you read F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, you realize that everything that the enigmatic bootlegger Gatsby does is to regain the attention and affection of Daisy, the young woman he had met briefly years before, and whose subsequent life and marriage he observed from far away, when all he had to go on was newspaper clippings and photographs.

Then something else crossed my mind. I needed a song to sing at the auditions for Encore Theatre's production of Carousel. This song was not only pleading its case, it was indeed insisting that I choose it. What was I to do? Sometimes you just have to follow where life leads you. And so I arrived at the auditions a week or so later with that melody in my heart and those lyrics in my mind.

This being my third audition, I certainly knew what to expect. The irrepressible Gila would be the maitre-d, getting the auditioners to sign in, handing out application forms, taking mug shots of everyone -- as if Rob, Paul, and Arlene wouldn't remember who most of us were. It was cold and damp sitting or standing outside on the catwalk waiting for one's turn, but the reception inside was an altogether different story. Unless you've done something terribly wrong, it helps to be a known quantity. You must go your way and I must go mine/But now that our love dreams have ended.....I sang my song as well as I could with my limited skills and was told that what I could do would be make myself available for rehearsals the following week. Fair enough!

One difference this time was that rehearsals would no longer be at the headquarters of Melabev, a service organization in Talpiot for the frail elderly, but at the Reut School, a grade school in an adjacent neighborhood. Equally hard to get to, but nowhere near as clean and well-maintained as where we had been. When you're not sure you want to use the bathroom, that's not a good sign. Anyway, the first day I arrived particularly early because I hadn't a clue where I was going and how long it would take me to get there. Good thing. Like a lot of places, once you know where it is, it's easy to find; but the first time...... Having found the right place, I stood on the street, directing everyone who came later to a nondescript building down an alleyway which you wouldn't have noticed if someone hadn't shown you the way.

People kept wandering in, and soon our first rehearsal would begin. We all introduced ourselves, and I began the impossible task of trying to remember all the faces that were new to me, including returning veterans and a bunch of children, one as young as eight. However, it wasn't just who was there, it was who wasn't there that was different. Some of the key roles had not been cast yet. Rob and Paul did not seem particularly fazed by that fact, so why should I worry?

A subtle difference about this production, as opposed to Ruddigore, was a certain choppiness to the way we went from rehearsal one to opening night. We started rehearsing the beginning of February to take into account all the days we would miss for Purim, all of Pesach, Yom Haatzmaut, Shavuot, etc., but the days off interrupted our flow. Our being in The States for two weeks in the middle of our rehearsals didn't help my personal sense of continuity, but there were many others who were also unavailable for personal or business reasons. About half a dozen of our cast were involved in other productions and wouldn't be available full time until midway in March (about the same time as we would be away).

The Big Question continued to be: who was going to play Billy Bigelow, the male lead? It takes a certain amount of emunah to begin putting on a musical without knowing who your lead would be -- perhaps also a touch of theatrical insanity. It might not take much "talent to do that," be a barker on a carousel, but it takes a gifted male singer-actor with a substantial range to perform the role and, in effect, carry the show. Guys like that are not hanging out on Ben Yehuda waiting to be discovered. Finally, when it was announced that Kendall Pinckney would be returning for the assignment, there was a collective whoop and a holler from the cast. Kendall had appeared two years before as Curly, the lead in Oklahoma, had performed admirably (I saw the production), and had also established himself as a really nice guy. Of course, he would not be flying out of Texas until near the end of May.

The problem was not would he have enough time to learn his role; he would and he did (likewise with 'Chip' Mannekin, who would be arriving from Maryland even later to take on a small but important speaking role). The problem would be one for the rest of the ensemble. For example, the prologue. Much as I am not overly enamored with "Carousel," I have to admit that the opening scene is both innovative and imaginative. Most musicals begin with an overture, followed by an ensemble number for the entire cast. Here these two elements are smushed together into an elaborate pantomime, an evening at a fair grounds in a coastal mill town in Maine sometime around 1870. I'm selling cotton candy, Nachum is selling ice cream, one of the Sara's is a fortune teller, one of the Jeff's is running a shell game, Ronnie is the cop chasing him around, Yael, Yaeli, and Elinor are "The Beauties of Europe," to which Raymond is trying to attract customers; there is a juggler, a ballerina, and a dancing bear. Most of the cast are in couples or family groups enjoying themselves for a wholesome evening out. All this activity is to set the stage for some of the main characters: Mrs. Mullins (Lucy), the widow who runs the carousel and who has her eye on her prized barker, Billy Bigelow, and the mill girl Julie Jordan (Miri), who is immediately attracted to Billy.

All of this action takes place accompanied by the Carousel Waltz, a musical number which lasts about seven or eight minutes. To make sense of this entire endeavor, Rob had to create an elaborate scenario, specifically what each character is supposed to do, when to enter and from where -- no easy task. I never asked Rob how he developed this number, whether he was taking elements from other productions he had seen or whether he made it up from scratch (ditto regarding Arlene's choreography for the ballet in act 2). Either way, it required a great amount of rehearsal time and a lot of revisions along the way. The fact that we had to pretend that the main actor was there while he was still back in Dallas, didn't make it any easier. Nor did it help that the scenery, especially the main item, the carousel, was still under construction and we were using chairs in its stead.

All the while we were rehearsing the vocal parts, the dialogue, and the movements for acts one and two, our set designer, the indefatigable Roxanne was hard at work. Every Friday morning, a small group of us would assemble to work on the scenery. Again, our work kept getting interrupted. We had started working in a small theater near Emek Refaim; but Hadassah, which owned the premises, had sold it, so we had to move everything out. We worked for the next several weeks in the parking area in front of Rob's apartment until he was able to secure a space in Talpiot (in the same building as the AACI), to which we had to move everything all over again.

When I say everything, you could not in your wildest dreams comprehend the totality of "everything." Some of the stuff had been stored in Rob's machsan; most of it had been somewhere in Efrat. We are talking about three truckloads of stuff. We are talking about anything that was ever used in any Encore Theatre production. We are talking about racks and boxes of costumes, scenery, props of every possible description ('possible' is the wrong word here because it would be impossible for me to describe or catalog the scope and variety of what we shlepped in to what had seemed originally like a very large space but was now starting to get very crowded). My original reaction when I began to comprehend what was coming off the truck was, "This guy must be one of the world's ten biggest pack-rats." More accurately, he is one of the world's greatest recycler (for all you 'greens' out there). If something was used once, it will inevitably get used again; sometimes again and again. I needed a white apron for my Cotton Candy outfit; Rob found one -- along with an appropriate chef's hat. Most of us needed something to add onto our sea men's costumes. A neckerchief? Red or blue? A vest? What size? Should Encore decide to produce "Brigadoon" in 2017, Rob is ready. The box all the way on top has enough kilts to outfit a bagpipe band. A show with a wedding scene? Rob has enough gowns to open a gemach.

In the midst of all this balagan, set painting continued under Roxanne's ministrations. Now this activity is not for the sentimental or the faint of heart. You could walk in one Friday morning and discover that someone has taken a piece of scenery from the last show which you had worked on with such determination and love and is smearing white or black paint over it so it can be redone for this show. You utter a poignant sigh and watch your work disappear into oblivion.

Much of the scenery is embellished with material made from disassembled cardboard cartons; these, of course, cannot be reused. Here I am in my element. I am the only one dumb enough not to mind the tedious task of cutting out patterns with a box cutter. Hour after hour I sliced away, following the intricate lines Roxanne has drawn. Not for nothing have I earned an honorary doctorate in box cutting. My meager efforts will be added onto by others. Soon there would be signs, banners, roofs, decorations for the carousels, all stenciled and painted, looking rock-solid. That's what you have to do when you're working on a shoe string. Wait a minute. What's in that box that Rob stuck over there in the corner? Isn't it labeled "shoe strings"?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Carousel Part 1

(We are interrupting our regularly scheduled series "What Used To Be Home" to present the following special reports on Carousel. We will resume our regular feature shortly. Please stay tuned.)

Anyone -- and that's almost everyone -- who's been involved in a lengthy and all-consuming project that all-of-a-sudden is over understands the feeling of what-do-I-do-now-? when that moment of finality has snuck upon on you. The wedding, the thesis for your degree, the exhibition, whatever it is, is over and done with, and now you have all this time one your hands. "Ruddigore," at least the Encore Theatre's production of it, was history. The hall was dark, the sets were packed up and sent to somewhere in Efrat, even the cast party was over. Except for the articles that I and one or two other cast members would write and the much-awaited DVD that would come out a month or so later, there would be nothing more to be said or seen. The verdict: a succès d'estime ("a book, movie, or play that is successful with critics but not with the public, or the success that is gained through critical acclaim").

Most of the time, once your all-consuming project is over, it's over, and your life is returned to you. Sometimes it's not; you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. ("Pick Yourself Up," Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, from the film "Swing Time, 1936. If you were curious.) And once in a while, you actually have a choice in the matter. For instance, I was having a conversation with one of women in the "Ruddigore" chorus who was trying to decide if she wanted to be in the next production, or not. The thing is, the conversation was taking place while we were waiting our turns at those auditions. Talk about ambivalence. (As I had discovered, some of the players get involved for one production and then disappear, never to be heard from [literally] again; some do a few shows; some do one a year; some get involved whenever there is a specific part for them; and then there are 'the faithful,' the ones who come back show after show because they love the opportunity to perform. Me? I guess I'll hang around as long as my voice holds out and I can move with some agility around the stage. I don't want to be cast as a mummy in "Aida.")

The next show for Encore was going to be Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." That's where my mixed feelings would come from-- the show itself, in fact, almost their whole repertoire. I don't have the same negative opinion about R&H's work as I do about "Les Mis" or "Phantom of the Opera." (OK, I do despise "The Sound of Music." I think it's fair to say that Do-Re-Mi is about the worst song this duo ever wrote.) Still, as far as I'm concerned, Rodgers and Hammerstein is definitely a step down from G&S. With the music of "Ruddigore" still ringing in my years, I listened to an original cast recording of "Carousel" from the Naxos catalog (which anyone can access from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra website.) Why is everyone in the cast always singing the same part? Isn't there any harmony? I often think of a distinction that Irving Berlin made: (I'm paraphrasing) We [he and his colleagues] all wrote some fine songs, but he [George Gershwin] was a composer. Sir Arthur Sullivan , who really was a composer, wrote music of great complexity for soloists, duets, trios, quartets, madrigals with six part harmony, patter songs, ballads, and it would have been unthinkable for an entire cast to be singing the same words and the same melody at the same time. Richard Rodgers wrote some very fine music, but it's nowhere near as interesting or as challenging.

Then there is Oscar Hammerstein The Second (the first being his father, a theatrical impresario). It would be pointless to compare his lyrics to those of W. S. Gilbert. More relevant, eighteen years before "Oklahoma" arrived on Broadway to a rapturous reception, a little review, The Garrick Gaieties, opened at a theater of the same name in New York -- with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by the first "H," Lorenz Hart. The standout number from that show was a disarmingly simple song which began: "Summer journeys/ To Niag'ra/ And to other places/ Aggravate all our cares./ We'll save our fares./ I've a cozy little flat/ In what is known as old Manhattan./ We'll settle down/ Right here in town./
We'll have Manhattan,/ The Bronx and Staten/ Island too....." It was the original R&H's first memorable song. People sang it then and some of us will still break into When balmy breezes blow/To and fro from time to time. George Balanchine, whose first language certainly was not English, called Hart "The American Shelley." It takes some kind of genius to rhyme "Niag'ra' with "aggra"-vate in such a way that you might not even notice what's going on right under your nose. What is most endearing, though, about Hart's work is not his considerable rhyming facility, but the anguish and impracticality of his lyrics. He was a deeply troubled man who became more and more erratic in his work habits as the years went by (he would leave his hotel room to buy some cigars and reappear two days later), and he needed Rodgers to write the music first so he would have to rise to the challenge of fitting his lyrics to Rodgers' melodies. Finally, their partnership ended, more with a whimper than a bang, when Hart couldn't and wouldn't work on "Oklahoma." Cowpokes and surreys, with or without fringes on the top, were not his métier -- and he knew enough to quit while he was ahead.

The other day (and I'm well ahead of myself here), I was listening to the ladies of the chorus as they sang something from the second act of "Carousel," Common sense will tell you that the ending will be sad....... and I thought to myself, can anyone imagine Lorenz Hart writing about 'common sense?' Three years before "Oklahoma," Hart wrote these lyrics for the score of "Pal Joey," ......I'm wild again/ Beguiled again/ A simpering, whimpering child again/ Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I...... Or consider: My funny Valentine, sweet comic Valentine/ You make me smile with my heart/ Your looks are laughable, unphotographable/ Yet, you're my favorite work of art...from "Babes in Arms." Nothing prudent, practical, or common-sensible here.

"Not only did Rodgers's music provide a structure for such intricate rhymes, its sonority (Cole Porter once quipped that every Rodgers melody had a certain "holiness" about it) served as a perfect counterpoint to Hart's cynical urbanity. Rodgers himself said that the secret of their best songs was a clash between a 'sentimental melody and unsentimental lyrics,' a clash punctuated by caustic rhymes." (I found this quote on page 97 of Philip Furia's book, "Poets of Tin Pan Alley.")

In a way, it's a matter of taste. When I get myself a cup of the excellent hafuk (cappuccino) sold throughout The Land, I drink it the way it comes; my daughter drowns it with sugar. I prefer the juxtaposition of the bitterness of the bean and the inherent sweetness of the milk; Natania doesn't. And musically speaking, America -- during and post-WW II, needed a different kind of entertainment, something more emotionally inspiring -- even if a little blander.

My knock on Hammerstein's lyrics is that I find them conventional most of the time and perhaps a tad too syrupy. They usually serve as verbal coat hangers for Rodgers' melodies which, come to think about it, do have a "certain holiness'" to them -- most of the time (just not "Do-Re-Mi"). Where Oscar II was unsurpassed -- and I have to respect him for this talent -- was his ability to create a coherent, integrated book; for, like W.S. Gilbert, he wrote all the dialogue himself (although it would be a stretch to call Gilbert's plots coherent). Every song, every conversation, every gesture, every choreographed step was there for one reason only, to advance the story line. Most of the songs wouldn't make any sense outside of their carefully created context; which is why, despite their familiarity, with few exceptions, they're rarely performed apart from the shows. It would be hard to imagine a nightclub chanteuse or a jazz quartet going on stage and starting with, I'm as corny as Kansas in August....... But the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows do work, are splendid entertainment, and are fun to perform. It could be a lot worse. At least I don't have to sing Master of the house....... Count me in.