What's New on the Rialto
The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser
and Enchanted Evenings
Book Reviews by Alan Gomberg
Sometimes you fall behind. And I fell behind when it came to reviewing The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser (Knopf; $49.95 MLP), the latest in Knopf's invaluable series of books documenting the work of America's great lyricists, published last November.
Loesser is best-known today as a composer-lyricist, but he spent his early years working as a lyricist. His genius was not immediately apparent: In an early lyric, for a song titled "Doing the Dishes" (with music by William Schuman, who would later become a well-known composer of concert music and the president of Juilliard), Loesser rhymed (or attempted to rhyme) "knife" with "lives," "damn" with "pan," and "running" with "plumbing."
Within the first few pages, glimmers of the Loesser we know appear, such as the following from an uncompleted, extremely silly comic opera (written with Schuman) about Leonardo Da Vinci, portrayed as a ladies' man who has run into a bit of resistance:
And in another lyric from the same piece, the police are hunting for a criminal who's been stealing eggs:
Admittedly, these lines are a bit sophomoric, and most of the other lyrics that survive from this piece are downright lame, but at the age of 22, Loesser was finding his voice.
By page 10, we get to Loesser's first fairly successful song, "Junk Man" (music by Joseph Myer), recorded by Mildred Bailey with Benny Goodman's band when Loesser was 23:
While the lyric holds up well and it was recorded by a major singer and band, the song was not a big hit. The following year Loesser was hired to write the lyrics for the songs to accompany a series of short films, possibly never made, inspired by the poetry of Edgar Guest. He must have sorely needed the money since he seems to have been expected to turn out sappy lyrics that read like parodies:
Loesser would later write of these songs, "My own opinion of the lyrics is as low as my calorie count was in those days."
Not long after, Loesser was hired for a brief stint as a house lyricist at Universal. He moved to a longer and successful stint at Paramount, where he soon wrote the lyrics for "Two Sleepy People" and "Heart and Soul," along with such oddities as "I Like Hump-Backed Salmon" (music by Burton Lane), sung by Fuzzy Knight, John Barrymore, and Lynn Overman in a movie called Spawn of the North. Loesser was soon regarded as one of the best lyricists in Hollywood, writing songs with such composers as Lane, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frederick Hollander, as well as with lesser names such as Manning Sherwin and Marty Malneck. Around this time, his clever songs got more inventive and his ballads got simpler.
Apart from his best work, though, during these years Loesser wrote many generic lyrics for songs in mediocre movies, leading to the question: Did any other lyricist who wrote so many great lyrics also write so many undistinguished ones? That composers like Lane and Jule Styne enthusiastically pursued him as a collaborator is perhaps less a testament to Loesser's brilliance than it is to the talent level of the other lyricists at Paramount.
Still, there are some good little-known lyrics from this period, tenderly romantic ones and wryly comic ones; an example of the latter is "Beans," an unused song about a girl working in a restaurant that serves beans, written for the film College Swing:
Finally, in 1939 he wrote a song for which both the music and the lyrics were credited to him, the title song for a film version of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen, but this didn't lead to Loesser being recognized as a composer. He continued to write lyrics to other people's music almost exclusively, working with Lane, Hollander, Carmichael, and new collaborators such as Jimmy McHugh, Jule Styne, and Arthur Schwartz, turning out hits including "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," as well as novelty and comedy songs.
Finally in 1942, another song for which he wrote both the words and the music was published, and it was an enormous hit: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." But he went back to usually writing just lyrics - for classic songs like "Let's Get Lost," "Murder, He Says," and "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," as well as songs like "The Fuddy Duddy Watchmaker," which are probably entertaining to hear but are awfully odd to read.
By the time the war was over, he was working almost exclusively as a composer-lyricist, producing the work for which he is best-known today. Within a few years, he wrote his first Broadway book musical - Where's Charley? - and he produced a number of big hits, including "On a Slow Boat to China," "Once in Love With Amy," "My Darling, My Darling," "I Wish I Didn't Love You So," and "Baby, It's Cold Aside," and unique songs such as "Make a Miracle" and "Hamlet," the latter featuring the immortal quatrain:
In the last sections of the book, it's fascinating to read some unused lyrics, such as the following from a draft of the title song from Guys and Dolls that was to be sung by Adelaide and Nathan (before the song was shifted to Nicely-Nicely and Benny Southstreet):
Robert Weede (in wheelchair), Jo Sullivan (fainting) and cast members
in the 1956 New York production of The Most Happy Fella
© Time-Life Publications
This book looks terrific, with some excellent photographs. Co-editors Robert Kimball and Steve Nelson are to be applauded for assembling as many lyrics as possible, going through the censorship files at Paramount and even blowing up a photo in which Loesser was holding a clipboard with a typed lyric sheet so that the lyric could be read. (Not included are "There Once Was a Man" and "A New Town Is a Blue Town," which John Raitt says Loesser contributed to The Pajama Game.)
Thanks are due to all involved for continuing this important and beautifully done series.
Geoffrey Block's Enchanted Evenings (Oxford University Press; $17.95 MLP), first published in 1999 and recently reissued in paper, grew out of a class that Block taught on musical theatre at the University of Puget Sound (Washington). "[F]aced with a dearth of usable textbooks," he wrote one of his own.
This ambitious book focuses on 14 Broadway musicals, moving chronologically from Show Boat to West Side Story, with a final chapter on several of Stephen Sondheim's shows. As Joseph Swain did in his 1990 The Broadway Musical and Stephen Banfield in his 1993 Sondheim's Broadway Musicals, Block analyzes musical as well as dramatic content. I am sure that readers who were fascinated by those two books will approach this book with great interest, but their hopes may be only partially fulfilled.
Block discusses such subjects as genre distinctions, critical and popular response, and sometimes the prior history of the composers, but rarely lays out plots in much detail. Consequently, this is a book for those who already know the shows covered (or are studying them in class). While Block often formulates interesting ideas, he sometimes fails to develop them as thoroughly as he should. Given how much ground Block tries to cover in most of the chapters and the seriousness with which he analyzes musical matters, he would have needed more pages to cover everything thoroughly.
When Block is at his best, he can be very good. His chapter on My Fair Lady offers an intelligent comparison of My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, showing how Lerner's additions to and deletions from Shaw's play (and Gabriel Pascal's film of the play) alter Higgins and Eliza so that their implied romantic involvement at the end seems natural. Block also demonstrates how Loewe's music skillfully aids in the dramatic development of the two characters.
Another fine chapter is the one on Show Boat, in which Block discusses the development and dramatic connotations of the various musical themes introduced in the ambitious first scene. On the other hand, while Block's musical analysis of how Kern develops thematic material for the major characters in the first scene is fascinating, I was frustrated by his failure to discuss whether a comparable level of musical development can be found in the rest of the show.
His chapter on Porgy and Bess is full of intelligent observations, even if his discussion of some textual matters and critical issues is a bit repetitive and unfocused.
Overall, despite its fine points, this book is problematic in ways that those of Swain and Banfield are not. Despite Block's claim that he will offer "a musical and dramatic analysis more accessible to readers unfamiliar with analytical terminology" than what is to be found in Swain and Banfield, I found some of his analyses to be more difficult to fathom than anything in Swain or even Banfield, whose analyses are sometimes very technical indeed. The basic problem is that Block's writing sometimes lacks clarity.
Perhaps I wouldn't be confused if I were taking a class with Block in which he demonstrated on the piano or through recordings the musical points he was making, but just reading the book left me unable to thoroughly grasp some of his observations.
Block also makes far more factual errors here than either Swain or Banfield do. Some are minor errors, but the sheer number becomes disturbing, not to mention that some of them misstate basic information. For example, he writes that Weill's Street Scene "would eventually achieve a commercial success roughly commensurate with its critical acclaim." What is he talking about? How often after the original production has Street Scene even been produced in the commercial arena? And it can't be said that Street Scene has become part of the standard repertory in opera houses. Among other errors, he manages to mix up the order in which "Show Me" and "Without You" are sung in My Fair Lady, to suggest that Nathan is onstage when the title song of "Guys and Dolls" is first sung, and to state that the 1992 recording of Blitzstein's Regina preserves a New York City Opera production.
Sometimes Block leaves out crucial pieces of information that would clarify his musical analyses. For example, fine as his chapter on Show Boat is, it would be even better if he had clarified the following passage: "The first two notes of Parthy's theme are a descending perfect fourth (D-A). ... Consequently, after this perfect fourth, Kern has Parthy introduce a Bb, only a half step up from the A but a giant step removed from the natural world of the river." Why a Bb is so far removed from an A will doubtless be clear to some readers, but I suspect that others would find this passage frustratingly vague, as I did. In an endnote regarding another passage in this chapter, Block mentions "the tensions inherent in half steps," but this is the sort of thing that should be in the text proper if you're writing a book intended for a general audience.
In conclusion, I am sure that some readers will find parts of this book fascinating. In addition to some intriguing insights, Block offers some interesting, little-known information. On balance, though, Enchanted Evenings is too flawed to be considered a primary text on the subject, especially for a general audience.
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