I was a youngster of five or six when I first became aware of musical theater. I was a freakish child of five voraciously reading about all things historical and presidential. One summer, my mother took me to see 1776 at the movie theater. Seeing the signing of the Declaration of Independence and being captivated by our singing and harmonizing founding fathers made me giddy. I would sing “Sit Down, John” and “The Egg” with a passion my neighborhood friends just didn’t understand. In junior high, the opportunity to PERFORM in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown gave me a new passion that I’ve enjoyed for most of my life.
There were so many written tributes paid to Burt Bacharach, who left us February 8 at the age of 95, that I would feel no need to add my own words now were it not for the paucity of space given to one of his finest projects: his only Broadway score, Promises, Promises (1968), with lyrics, as usual, by the agile and underrated Hal David.
Bacharach came out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1950s, then quickly rose to household-name status over the next 10 years with one pop hit after another — so many of them introduced or covered gorgeously by Dionne Warwick. His writing became increasingly, memorably, miraculously idiosyncratic, with complex meters, bold harmonies and tunes that remain living ear worms all these years later. Will anyone ever forget the quirky front phrase of “What’s New, Pussycat?” Doubtful.
Recently, Bill asked me to start thinking about an article for an upcoming issue of TMTP’s Overture Newsletter – something about my first year with the organization and rediscovering a love of classic American musical theater.
As I gather my thoughts, I’m particularly intrigued by how individual musical tastes change over the years and how closely tied they are tied to identity – More than our taste in literature or visual art. Music is almost like shorthand for who we are and what groups of people we seek to associate with. As a young adult, I listened primarily to rock. My friends listened to rock. “Everyone” listened to rock and the fact that I occasionally enjoyed listening to music from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Camelot” or “Cabaret” was my little secret.
Everybody who knows more than a dozen musicals knows that at 21 Barbra Streisand became a Broadway star as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. And nearly everybody knows that two years earlier, she stole the show in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, wildly swiveling in her office chair as the sexually frustrated Miss Marmelstein.
The Musical Theater Project just closed its 15th annual “Christmas Cabaret” with sold-out performance at Edwin Too on Shaker Square—and once again audiences were surprised to hear an often-forgotten fact revealed by NANCY MAIER, NATALIE GREEN and JOE MONAGHAN.
Namely, that most of our best-loved Christmas songs—from “White Christmas” to “The Christmas Song” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were penned by Jewish American songwriters. Oh, everybody knows about Irving Berlin—the quintessential Jewish immigrant—and his “White Christmas,” but not so much when it comes to Mel Torme’s “roasting chestnuts” and Johnny Marks’s “shiny-nosed” four-legged one.
In our show, I call it a cultural phenemenon!
And that’s to say nothing of composer Jule Styne. Styne is the Funny Girl and Gypsy guy, of course, but of the songwriters whose work comprises the Great American Songbook, he also the major Christmas-song guy.
With fellow Jewish American Sammy Cahn he wrote “The Christmas Waltz” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” But Styne also wrote no less than three Christmas musicals for television: “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962 – from which we performed the beautiful “Winter Was Warm”), Liza Minnelli’s The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood (1965) and The Night the Animals Talked (1970).
I had the privilege of interviewing Styne near the end of his life, and this is what he told me about his attraction to the holiday season: “Look, Christmas is the time of year when Americans want to sing more songs and hear more song than at any other time. And it’s a season about love. How could I not want to be part of that?”
November 26 marks the first year of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, and like you, I have been thinking a lot about the loss of this great artist. No doubt there have been hundreds of us—men and women who found the confidence to make a career in musical theater thanks to Sondheim’s generosity of spirit and dedication to teaching.
As the winter weather rolls in and the pandemic rages on, now is the perfect time to hunker down and get cozy with your favorite cast albums. It’s also the time when new releases usually become available from the current Broadway season. Sadly, new musicals are on hold for a while, but TMTP is here to introduce you to a few old ones you may have missed. Here are the staff picks for “hidden gems” they truly love, but have fallen through the cracks over time.
Every October Manhattan is usually bursting with song as the Mabel Mercer Foundation presents the annual Cabaret Convention. The artform specializing in live and intimate song interpretation certainly wasn’t created with “social distancing” in mind, but nobody’s gonna rain on this parade. For the first time ever, audiences around the world can enjoy a virtual version of the event jam packed with star power. You can register to attend one of many sessions at the link below. In the meantime, here are TMTP’s selections for must-listen cabaret albums.
We’re thrilled when our participants tell us they have learned, laughed, cried and loved (our slogan) at one of our events—but I must confess I’m just as happy when I learn something, which happens all the time.
Example: Now available on our Let’s Go to the Movies series is my preview of the Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress (1937). We’ve provided the link to the film, and you can be part of our live-streamed Q&A on October 15.
Between multiple Broadway revivals, cabaret recordings, film versions, television clips and concert events, it’s hard to identify the quintessential Leonard Bernstein. As we celebrate the late composer’s birthday this week, TMTP’s staff went down the YouTube rabbit hole to share a few beloved clips worth watching.