A TEENAGE OLD SOUL

By Bill Rudman

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.

But ironically, it’s not on Broadway that we got the first glimpse of her singular vision as a singer. At 17 she began the first of several engagements at New York’s Bon Soir (in Greenwich Village, naturally). She instantly owned the place and observed years later, “Some singers, like Mabel Mercer, used to spend their whole lives singing in small clubs. I could understand why after playing the Bon Soir, where I spent some of the happiest nights of my working life.”

So here comes a new CD from Columbia Records (now Sony), the only label she has ever recorded for. “Barbra Streisand Live at the Bon Soir” shares performances from November 1962; it was her late-night gig after the curtain came down on Wholesale, and it was to have been released as her first album. Sony tells us that this is the debut of her Bon Soir recordings. They’re fibbing. Of the 24 cuts on the CD, eight first appeared in the 1991 compilation, “Barbra Streisand: Just for the Record.”

But I’m quibbling. To finally get the whole shebang in one package is a glorious gift. In 1962 she wasn’t happy with the sound (the Bon Soir was a tough room to mike), and it took 60 years until a digital remix from the master tapes made her happy.

The real point of this, however, is that the CD provides an expansive look at what was to come. She’s working with just four musicians, and there are times she pushes a bit too much—arrangers like Peter Matz and Ray Ellis arrived soon, and their orchestras were totally in sync with where she wanted to go.

But that’s more quibbling. What’s fascinating is that much of her repertoire at the Bon Soir later turned up on the early LPs, and when you add up all 24 tracks it’s quite a statement from a 19-year-old. Most of the songs—and she chose her own material from the get-go—were written by the old guard of our musical theater, including Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and no less than six songs are by the great Harold Arlen and his various lyricist-partners.

What did such a young woman find in the work of these masters, written in the 1930s, 40s and 50s? I’ll offer good taste and sophistication and let it go at that. In 1962 she was already surrounded by rock ‘n’ roll, but here are such sublime items as Arlen & Koehler’s “When the Sun Comes Out,” Rodgers & Hart’s “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street,” Arlen & Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” and Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry”—the latter two from musicals that flopped. Now we know all four, and Streisand is largely responsible for turning them into standards as she determinedly bucked the tide of American popular music.

So you need this CD in your collection—it’s a disc that has “old soul” written all over it. As her star was rising, the old guard was falling, desperately seeking a champion for their music and lyrics. Streisand was the last young singer to win acclaim honoring them, and oh, how grateful they were! On one of her early LPs, Richard Rodgers—a man not given to overstatement—summarized the feelings of his brethren when he used the entire back cover to write: “Nobody is talented enough to get laughs, to bring tears, to sing with the depth of a fine cello or the lift of a climbing bird. Nobody, that is, except Barbra. She makes our musical world a much happier place than it was before.”

It’s all there at the Bon Soir.

TMTP Highlights a ‘Cultural Phenomenon’

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?”

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A REMEMBRANCE

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.

I bet I’m typical. I wrote to him in 1969, when I was an 18-year-old living in a small town in Ohio. Topic: Anyone Can Whistle. I sent him a blank reel-to-reel tape, asking him (such chutzpah) to respond to my questions. Lo and behold, he brought in collaborator Arthur Laurents so they could do it together, with Sondheim commenting that since I was writing “a master’s thesis” (!), he felt I deserved the “most pretentious possible reply.” (High praise indeed from Sondheim.)

I promise you I didn’t misrepresent myself—but for whatever reason, he took me seriously, and our correspondence officially began. Two years later, I was teaching a course in musical theater history while a student at a tiny Ohio college. Displaying more chutzpah, I invited him to speak to my class, but though he declined (graciously explaining that he hated to fly), he invited me to interview him at his Turtle Bay townhouse. In 1973 he even invited me to attend the recording session for A Little Night Music. I took notes! Nirvana! And after the epic 14-hour session, he took me and a friend of his out for a nightcap across the street from the Columbia Records studio.

Then in 1975, when I was working for Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, he gave us the first non-aquatic rights to do The Frogs. He and Burt Shevelove made revisions, and we premiered the heart-piercing Sondheim-Shakespeare song, “Fear No More.”

By 1979, I was living and working in Manhattan, and I decided not to trouble him further (except sporadically!). Forty-three years later, I’m artistic director of The Musical Theater Project, an educational nonprofit in Cleveland. We have a national record label, Harbinger Records, and a few years ago I asked him to do a liner note for a CD retrospective on Hugh Martin, a songwriter I knew he admired.

Amazingly he remembered me and wrote a splendid note. In gratitude I sent him a CD we had produced of piano rolls that nobody knew existed, recorded in the 1920s by Richard Rodgers. Imagine: I finally had the chance to teach him something.

In 1994 New York Magazine famously asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God”? It’s my favorite rhetorical question.

I am so grateful to the godlike man who believed in me…

What’s Bill Up To?

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.

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What’s Bill Up To?

Bill is up to what all of us at The Musical Theater Project are up to—and this goes for most arts organizations in Cleveland as well. We’re creating online programming as a means of serving our participants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of TMTP, that includes our new weekly series, “Let’s Go to the Movies…at Home!,” an adaptation of our acclaimed school program, “Kids Love Musicals!,” and specially selected song playlists that can be streamed on Spotify. (And of course our two long-running radio programs on public stations and Sirius continue, unaffected by the virus.)

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Summer Reading List

Whether you’re laying on the beach or curled up on your porch, nothing says summer quite like indulging in a new book. While there’s plenty of escapist novels to dive into, the staff at TMTP is sharing some of our favorite musical theater books of all-time in case you’re missing the bright lights of Broadway this season. Click on the book image to view/purchase on Amazon.

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LAINIE HADDEN AND TMTP

As you know, Greater Cleveland lost an irreplaceable community leader and philanthropist on September 20 with the death, at 88, of Lainie Hadden.

When we think of her, we think first of how Lainie, the Junior League and a visionary named Ray Shepardson saved the Playhouse Square theaters from the wrecking ball in the early 1970s. Over the years, she deflected all praise for her work, but those of us who had watched closely knew she spearheaded the effort. By now, of course, the Playhouse Square district has developed beyond her most fantastic dreams.

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Noel Coward Fans Rejoice!

For the first time on CD, here’s Noel Coward’s demo recordings for what eventually became Sail Away. Believe it or not some of these were recorded in India by Coward! There’s 26 delicious tracks of the master including two bonus tracks of Coward and director Joe Layton providing vocals. Some of the songs never made it into the finished show and these are their only recordings. This is a terrific album for Coward fans as well as Broadway collectors and aficionados. ​

Noel Coward Sings Sail Away and Other Coward Rarities is Harbinger’s August Album of the Month and available now for only $10!