By ROB LESTER**** The agenda on May 6, 7 and 8? Saluting some lyricists who rarely get their due. With insightful, delightful lyricist Sheldon Harnick hosting and narrating and singing a few times, Broadway/concert veterans Judy Kuhn, Elizabeth Stanley, Sal Viviano, and Aaron C. Finley to consider and celebrate some Lyrics and Lyricists in the long-running series of that title at the 92nd Street Y’s concert hall. (The season ends with The final Lyrics & Lyricists shows for 2017 is From Camelot to California: The Worlds of Lerner and Loewe, scheduled for June 3–5, with a special one-performance-only on June 26: Lyrics & Lyricists Favorites: Your Choice.)
Hale and hearty, heartfelt Harnick (left), lively and life-affirmingly thoughtful as ever at age 93, is a frequent and valued narrator for L&L ever since it began way back in 1971 when songs for his shows with composer Jerry Bock, such as Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me were surveyed (and preserved on a recording). He and Judy Kuhn, who starred in Broadway revivals of those two musicals, separately handled the first songwriter considered in Songbook Classics by Unsung Lyricists—Herman Hupfeld, with both numbers dating from 1931.
It’s worth pointing out that Hupfeld (pictured at right) is the only lyricist of those examined who wrote his own music. After an overture by the band meant to remind audience members that they could “name that tune,” but maybe not name that lyricist or know much about him, we got a welcome from our happy host and then the cute anecdote we can call “Hupfeld, Harnick & Harmonica.” Harnick told a cute story about winning the prize of a harmonica in a talent contest when he was nine years old by singing Hupfeld’s novelty “When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba.” I guess the budget wouldn’t cover a pricier tuba? Anyway, this ditty brought out the charm and lovability this valued member of the Broadway community has often evidenced in his personality and writing, and I’m willing to bet he had it in developing spades by age nine. But he may have hit an awkward pre-teen spell, as he revealed that eh entered the contest again at age 11, and didn’t win. I suppose that kept him humble, another lasting quality. In any case, his rendition of the quirky number was a winner in 2017, too, for this audience and myself.
Surprisingly, disappointingly, not everything that followed would be as swell or gel as well. I should point out that I saw the opening performance, and having sometimes seen them twice in their three-day/five-performance mini-runs, I’ve been witness to the fact that these concerts are known to become tighter and brighter as time goes by. “As Time Goes By” (didn’t I just type those words?), Hupfeld’s one-and-only classic to last and last as time goes by, was OK, but Judy Kuhn’s solo and the arrangement was absent some wistfully wise warmth. It did, however, benefit from the inclusion of the introductory verse which many omit. (“This day and age we’re living in/ Gives cause for apprehension” but opining that, before the familiar chorus comes in, that some key realities won’t change, despite any “new invention” that may come on the scene (we in the crowd may be thinking of those devices we’re oft buried in and were asked a few minutes ago to silence). Harnick pointed out the value of those lesser-known introductory verses some of relish as sometimes revelatory perspective-providers and let us know we’d be getting plenty of them, quipping, “At the Y, we believe in giving you your money’s worth!”
While “As Time Goes by” was first trotted out in a Broadway production in 1932, it became far more famous when used years later as a memory-trigger for the reunited couple in the film Casablanca. And most of the songs on the program were written for the movies and were the ones that became standards. Harnick’s analysis was that those writing for Tin Pan Alley, the hit parade of the 1930s and ’40s and films of the era were aimed at a wide American public, that they were simpler and less sophisticated than those indulged in by Broadway writers. Wit and wordplay were not as much priorities as warmth and romance or bounce. Duly noted.
Mack Gordon, a wordsmith who collaborated with several composers, was next up. Two of his most prominent partnerings were with music men named Harry. Finley combined two of the lovestruck ballads Gordon (at right, with cigar) wrote with Harry Revel‘s melodies, both Revel reveries–meaning that their light, legato lines suggested a dreamy mode and mood, with the subject of dreams literally in the titles: “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” and “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” I wonder if anyone hearing this title today— besides me— first encountered the latter in childhood while watching a Popeye cartoon in which his lanky love interest, Olive Oyl, was dangerously, but unknowingly, sleepwalking — the story taking her many stories above ground on levels of a building under active construction. Interesting fact I learned years ago when assigned to review a box set of these cartoons, with commentary tracks and background notes: The studio producing the cartoons shared access to a wealth of songs owned by the same copyright-holders who first contracted them. Sal Viviano, who never seems to age in the years I’ve seen and heard him, had no worries about such matters, was assigned “You Make Me Feel So Young” and took it in a breezy manner, without as hard a swing as brought to it by Sinatra (to whom he has a tribute concert in his repertoire). Each of the four singers then had a chance to solo (the women) or lead the group (Sal and Aaron) with a famous number by Gordon and the other Harry— Harry Warren.
Warren a very successful composer, is sometimes pointed to as one whose profile and name recognition doesn’t match the success and familiarity of his many songs, then and now. There are tales of him being known as “Harry Who?”, the security guards not knowing his name or face to let him into the Academy Awards ceremony (he was nominated 11 times!!) and his name not appearing in posters of the 1980 Broadway extravaganza musical called 42nd Street featuring and boosted by his earlier hit songs from movies, opening a year before his death. (I hope that didn’t hasten it, but I digress; we’re here to discuss lyricists, officially, but Harnick rightly tipped his hat to Warren.)
Warren’s music was generously sampled when we got to the last segment, considering lyricist Al Dubin (seen here, with Warren at the piano), a talented but troubled man. (Harnick expressed sympathy for Dubin’s drinking and personal problems and admiration for his craft. The biography of Dubin, written by his daughter, is illuminating.) While several different films were the source of the material heard in this concert, the hefty total of eight of them were indeed included in the stage version of the aforementioned stage hit which hit Broadway twice (1980-1989 !! and 20001-2005) and those whose reference point is not old movies, but experience either run or the cast albums they spawned might be dubious about Dubin’s other work. We only got two numbers not heard there, and only one besides Warren. That was Joe Burke, who provided the melody for the dainty “Tip Toe Through the Tulips with Me,” (in)famously revived by the (in)famous Tiny Tim and his trusty ukulele. The task fell to the far less quirky Finley, who amiably smiled his way through. (No tip toe choreography in this rather dance-challenged show.)
But, wait, there was more. While some renditions and arrangements fell into the passable but not thrilling terrain of “pleasantly professional,” a weaker tea that warms, but doesn’t have the invigorating taste we crave for creative interpretations of the very familiar, there were high spots. The musicians were all experienced name players we’ve heard in juicier performances. Musical director Rob Fisher came off best, but I miss his old Coffee Club Orchestra’s more caffeinated percolating productions. Spark was missing. Vocally, there were two standouts in a section devoted to lyricist Leo Robin (at left). There was some drive the lower gear on the horizon with “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” but, beyond the teamwork on vocal harmonies on that oldie (music by Richard Whiting and Franke Harling), only “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” had enough spark to truly catch fire. Elizabeth Stanley, slinky and vamping, finding a nice balance between tongue-in-cheek and too cheeky or crass, strutted and sassed and successfully mined some laughs in Robin’s lyrics, making a welcome “encore” return after the false ending, with Jule Styne’s melody from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and herself, a preferred selection.
Alas, in the opening night’s opening of the second half, Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger classic, “Thanks for the Memory,” memory itself was maddeningly the absentee element. Stanley, Finley, Viviano, and Kuhn all had music stands in front of them, with the music very obviously there and frequently checked, eyes down, pages being distractedly turning. Making this more painful, the singers were paired for “dramatic context” as couples, trying to relate to each other, profile to profile, coming off instead as disinterested conversationalists rudely perusing their newspapers at the same time or checking their text messages. It was an insult to an audience paying $63 and up for seats (but with discounts for those age 35 and under, please note). The number should have been cut or trimmed or reassigned to whoever truly knew it best. I’m hoping that after opening night, it was pared, repaired, learned, or spurned, and such an awkward scene didn’t continue. As I said before, these shows do tend to get more pulled together in later performances. But there were music stands dragged on and off to have some of what I consider cheating at other times, and in the full-cast finale of “Lullaby of Broadway,” Judy Kuhn holding a full-size piece of paper and looking at it often could not be missed, while others looked at the lyrics projected on the screen to encourage the audience to chime in. They did. It’s a tradition at this series.
Lyricist Ned Washington (right), not last but not least (I’m not mentioning them in the same order they were explored), was represented by five songs, three of which were from the Disney animated version of Pinocchio (music: Leigh Harline) from 1940, with “When You Wish Upon a Star” led by our indefatigable, informed, instructive, insightful, indispensable, ingratiating, invaluable host who— in addition to his anchoring, illuminating talk and delightful performance — had a high falsetto note in his arsenal, but no false note to be struck anywhere.
Below is a picture taken at the Trocadero in 1938, featuring seven top songwriters of the era. In the top row, from left, are Al Dubin, Mack Gordon, Leo Robin, Harry Revel and Harry Warren. Below them are Lorenz Hart and Hoagy Carmichael.