The Music of the Night

October 30, 2018

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Enrico Caruso, with his head in a noose, and Emmy Destinn, about to save him from hanging, in the original production of La Fanciulla del West.

We seized the rare opportunity to see a performance of Giocomo Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West when it was presented last week in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s HD broadcast series.

This is one of Puccini’s least popular operas, although some authorities, including Puccini himself, have said that it is one of his best. The discrepancy is probably due to the fact that this opera—inspired by David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West—is almost devoid of the arias that for many folks are the real if not the only attraction of grand opera.

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GIOCOMO PUCCINI

The tenor does have a well known aria, “Ch’ella mi creda,” in the third act; according to the commentary between the acts on the HD broadcast, Puccini had not included that song in the original version but inserted it at the request of Enrico Caruso, who was to sing the premiere performance of the opera in 1910 at the Met, which had commissioned it.

Anyway, during the first act, I was momentarily aware that I was listening to music from the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. Then it was gone. Then I heard it again—a melody from “Music of the Night.” And then I recalled that in the patter setting up the performance someone had made a remark that I didn’t understand to the effect that Andrew Lloyd Webber loves this opera.

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ANDREW LLOYD WEBER/The Independent photo

Later, I did what any music scholar would do—a Google search—and learned that when The Phantom of the Opera appeared, Puccini’s opera was still protected by copyright, and his estate sued Lloyd Webber, alleging plagiarism. The suit was settled out of court, and the details were never made public.

I was not surprised to read about that, because I was aware that Puccini’s publishers  had sued another musical personality—Al Jolson—under similar circumstances. That case involved the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca and “Avalon,” a song attributed to Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. “Avalon” doesn’t get much play time these days, but Casablanca aficionados will recognize it as the tune Sam is fooling around on the keyboard just before he plays “As Time Goes By.”

The Puccini bunch maintained that the opening melody of “Avalon” is identical to that of the aria, except that the opening of the aria is written in a minor key. Puccini’s publishers sued the composers in 1921 and were awarded $25,000 plus all royalties earned by “Avalon” thereafter.

I wrote about the latter case a few years ago in a post that was prompted by a dust-up over the similarity between Sam Smith’s hit “Stay With Me” and the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down.”

Borrowing from other composers is a time-honored phenomenon, but so is the concept of intellectual property. As I mentioned in the earlier post, those who play it safe can have the best of both worlds. The case in point was Pete Seeger’s song “Sailing Down My Golden River.” We heard Pete explain during a concert in 2015 that after he had written the lyrics to that song, he found the opening melody in the first seven notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” which was published in 1862 and, in turn, was based on a sixteenth-century Welsh carol. Of course, from Pete’s point of view, that wasn’t stealing anyway——it was just the folk process at work.

 

 

 

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“Who wants people?”

July 21, 2017

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As misanthropic as that title sounds—”Who wants people?”—misanthropy wasn’t what Lorenz Hart had in mind when he wrote that lyric in 1935 to go along with Richard Rodgers’  melody for “There’s a Small Hotel.”

No, Hart was thinking about solitude when he wrote, “Looking through the window / You can see a distant steeple /Not a sign of people, who wants people?” It was all about a couple, Junior and Frankie, who were planning get cozy in a remote way station where, according to Hart’s imagination, the amenities included “cheerful prints of Grant and Grover Cleveland” and an organ that was tuned every other fall.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

By most accounts, Hart’s lyric was inspired by Rodgers’ visit to a place most recently known as the Stockton Inn, a restaurant and hotel whose history can be traced to a quarry-stone residence that was built in Stockton, New Jersey, hard by the Delaware River, in 1710, and still stands as the focal point of the establishment.

That area along the Delaware, including New Hope, Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw to the south, was once the haunt of New York’s creative community, including the Algonquin crowd.

If Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald were heading for the inn now, they’d be disappointed. We rushed down there for dinner recently after reading that it was closing in a week. It appears, and one hopes, that the original building will be preserved in the comprehensive redevelopment envisioned for the site. The structure does appear in a rendering, posted on the inn’s web site, of the mixed-use development proposed for the property.

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Jimmy Durante

Meanwhile, “There’s a Small Hotel” has a quirky history in that Rodgers and Hart wrote it for “Jumbo,” a famous Broadway show—and later a movie—produced by Billy Rose. It was in that show that Jimmy Durante got to utter one of the shortest and most enduring lines in Broadway lore. Durante is leading a live elephant across the stage in order to keep it from being seized as the circus goes bankrupt. He is stopped by a sheriff who asks, “Where are you going with that elephant?” to which Durante replies, “What elephant?”

Anyway, “There’s a Small Hotel” was cut from “Jumbo” because the show was running too long, but it was introduced by Ray Bolger and Doris Carson in 1936 in the Rodgers and Hart hit “On Your Toes.”

Hart reputedly didn’t like the melody of the song, and frequently made fun of it in Rodgers’ presence by making up off-color lyrics. Others took to the tune, though, and it has been recorded by Josephine Baker (in French), Erroll Garner, Petula Clark, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstein, Della Reese, Barbara Cook, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Orbach, and Frank Sinatra (in the soundtrack of “Pal Joey”).

You can hear Carmen MacRae and Sammy Davis Jr. sing their version of “There’s a Small Hotel” by clicking HERE.