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...."

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