Sunday, April 8, 2012

Forgotten Gems of Arlen and Mercer

For my 13th birthday in 1957, my parents' friend Clair arranged a special surprise.  A chorus girl, she was performing in a musical comedy called Rumple [no connection with the later BBC series] . i remember little of the plot, and the show was a flop, but to me, going to live theatre for the first time, it was bliss. lights dimming, orchestra warming up, curtain rising, first lines...nothing, nothing was or could be more exciting. i was totally hooked, and remained so for years.  i went to everything:  shakespeare, miller, and pretty much whatever was playing on [and later off] broadway.  my father frequently came home with 'twofers' for a play that was failing or preparing to end a long run   hamlet or world of suzy wong,  they were  all equally brilliant to me.  mostly, though, i loved musicals.

over the years, i've forgotten most of those musicals.  a few, however, have stayed in my mind.  i had recently been thinking about some of these, and, thanks to the magic of google and of sound-improving technology, i've found albums of two i had loved most.  both were by arlen and mercer, both near flops at the time, both now largely forgotten.  and both had daring subtexts criticising capitalism.  Jamaica  [1957] starred lena horne and the nearly white ricardo montalban.  Horne was a beautiful belle set to marry montalbon, but pulled by a desire to move to glamorous new york.  arlen and mercer had recycled a great, sassy song they'd first used in Cabin in the Sky years earlier, "Ain't It the Truth" [a song that has reappeared in recent years in the repertoire of Audre McDonald].  "Push the Button' and "Three Monkeys in the Mango Tree'' light-heartedly mocked human greed and regressive 'progress,' while "Leave the Atom Alone,'' with an angry edge that seems amazing for the bomb-enthralled 1950s [and perhaps played a part in the show's relatively short run]. "Coconut Sweet" was a gentle, sexy love song that, a decade earlier, might have become a hit on its own.

two years later came the same team's Saratoga, based on an edna ferber novel and starring carol lawrence and howard keel as a pair of con artists who meet in high-toned saratoga, new york, predictably falling in love along the way. terrific songs, but the one that stands out and whose entire lyrics i had remembered for over 50 years, is one i'd love to see revived today.  ''the men who run the country' is a self-congratulatory ode to their own cleverness sung by four robber barons. i wish i could legally quote it all, but i'll settle for a few bits.  as the title says, these guys rule everything, including cops and politicians, while they 'mutilate the woodland and disintegrate the plain."  they are rapists, near murderers,  growing more and more successful by the day as they impoverish the citizens,  and though the 'headlines say red lines' they become millionaires.  and everyone believes them because they keep assuring the populace that the economy is improving.

soon these, and even smash hits like The Music Man, would pretty much vanish as rock became the music of both rebellion and submission, and the rock musical was born and flourished.  but it's nice to know i was just old enough to be there as 'the great american songbook' was exiting, and to go to musicals every month or more, not knowing that it would soon be the end for mercer and arlen, porter and berlin, and all of their ilk, apart from a handful of cafe society singers.  and it's nice to listen to those songs again, remembering that girl who, unhappy enough in daily life, was uplifted by those great popular-music artists.  ain't it the truth.....

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