“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.

“Babes in Arms”

November 4, 2012

JUDY GARLAND and MICKEY ROONEY

Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.

This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got  the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on  Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.

RAY HEATHERTON

That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.

This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic —  a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.

Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is  an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.

Rooney and Garland in blackface

I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.

There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.

Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and the navy nurses sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” in the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”

On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

JAMES MINCHENER

The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.

Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.

EZIO PINZA and MARY MARTIN

The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.

RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN

We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.

South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.

What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.

A touch of class

July 17, 2012

This is the kind of person Celeste Holm was.

In the 1970s I wrote about her somewhere that her favorite stage role was Anna in “The King and I,” a role she took over in 1951 at the request of Richard Rodgers after the original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, died during the run of the show. Celeste saw that and called me. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor,” she said. “Would you send that article to Richard Rodgers. I want him to know how I feel about that role.” I asked her why she didn’t send it to him herself, and she said that she didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for her to send someone an article about herself. “Well,” I said, “don’t you think Richard Rodgers is going to think it’s peculiar that someone he never heard of sends him a newspaper clipping from out of nowhere.” “Oh,” she said with a laugh that she once told me was only slightly removed from wisdom, “you’re a writer. You’ll think of something to tell him.”

So I complied — Celeste was just regal enough that a person didn’t seriously consider not complying — and Richard Rodgers was delighted, as he told me by return mail.

The fact that she managed that transaction so carefully was part of the elegance that enveloped her — a kind of sophistication that I associated with women like Arlene Francis and Kitty Carlisle Hart. But Celeste was anything but distant. A lot has been published since her death this week about her many civic and charitable works. And while that involved titled roles with public and private organizations, it always involved Celeste’s heart.

I saw that first hand on one occasion when I foolishly volunteered to produce a sort of cultural concert of music and drama to benefit an organization that provided services to mentally handicapped citizens. I recruited a bunch of professional performers, but I had no idea what I was doing. The program was what vaudeville used to call an olio — a bunch of unrelated parts, but in this case it was supposed to look like a coherent whole. To achieve that, I had written a script that tied the sundry parts together, and I asked Celeste if she would be the narrator. She, being Celeste, agreed, and I took the script up to her apartment on Central Park and together we tweaked it to fit her particular style of speaking.

As the day of the performance approached, however, I was convinced that the disparate pieces of the concert were going to unravel into an incoherent melange — with about 900 paying customers in the audience. As I anticipated a complete run-through of the various acts on the afternoon before the performance, I called Celeste. She and her husband, actor Wesley Addy, not only came to the run-through but took command of it, checking sound and lighting, talking up the performers so as to assure a smooth transition from act to narration to act to narration.

That night, when the lights went up and Celeste stepped up to a lectern, she looked down at the seats directly in front of her and saw a group of mentally handicapped people whom we had invited to the event. Celeste hadn’t anticipated these guests. Her eyes filled with tears. Instead of beginning the narration, she walked to the edge of the stage: “Thank you!” she told those folks. “Thank you so much for coming!”