An Adolescent's Love Affair With Broadway Tunes
HEY, Dad, pleeease may I have this record?"We had gone to TOPPS, the discount house, to buy other things, but I ended up in the record department next to the bin of "reduced" recordings of Broadway shows. It was that era in the life of America when a youngish president and his glamorous wife had sparked a renewal of interest in life at the White House. This phenomena was reflected briefly on Broadway by the production of a musical comedy entitled "Mr. President." It was one of the last such efforts by a man whose work spanned the era from Tin Pan Alley to rock, Irving Berlin. The musical starred Nanette Fabray and Robert Ryan, two rather improbable recruits for a musical. (Ryan handled the songs not unlike Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady," with a kind of talk-singing of such lyrics as, "It gets lonely in the White House when you're sitting there, and you have to do your thinking in a rocking chair. When you're all alone and staring into space, and you wish the man you ran against could be there in your place... .") I learned about Irving Berlin and the stars in the show later; at TOPPS, I had the mission of convincing my dad that this record was worth his money, and that at age 11, it was worth my time to be planning to listen to a musical which had flopped on Broadway. We had lots of records at home, but the ones of musicals were of the blockbusters South Pacific," "My Fair Lady,Oklahoma that had made it out to the provinces through the Shubert Theaters, one of which was an hour away. It wasn't that my family needed to be introduced to the musical genre; we went to the big shows. It was just that I had a feeling that I wanted to listen to "Mr. President," to make my own a show that was not introduced to me by others. I talked Dad into it. My hunch is that he saw it as an investment in letting me make my own mistakes. But it was no mistake. It became a door. Judged against the best of Irving Berlin, let alone Rodgers, Hammerstein, and company - it was a bad musical. It was laced with an aging songwriter's attempt to be pop, and with a heavy-handed patriotism. ("This is a great country, a great country, so let's have it clear and loud. Take a look in your history book, and you'll see why we should be proud. Hats off to America, the home of the free and the brave! If this is flag waving, flag waving, do you know of a better flag to wave?") I listened over and over to the songs until I knew them all by heart. This was not out of guilt because of the money Dad had spent. I had many things at home which were bought in haste, used once and laid aside. It was just that, hackneyed as the themes were, the touch of a master was there. Whatever one might say about the content of the show, the music and the message went together; the story evolved with and from the songs. It was my introduction to the crucial lesson that art is not simply form or content, but the interacting of the two, sometimes with tension. I would later learn these same lessons from works that will never go to the discount bin of cultural history - Milton, Proust, and Cezanne. But my first sense of how art happens emerged as I listened to the album of a Broadway show which was clearly not of the blockbuster grade. After "Mr. President," I was hooked. My parents were smart enough to spot my passion and to give me the as-yet-unheard-of liberty of using their charge account at a local department store to buy Broadway records. I used it well and often, and I started my collection with some of the big shows: "West Side Story,Camelot," and "Funny Girl." All of these reinforced my original experience of deep pleasure at the convergence of form and content, story and song. But they really didn't take me further, didn't shake me toward any new aesthetic perception, for which, after my initial experience, I had come to hope. That came eventually from listening to a record I never bought, and a show - the longest running ever - that I have never seen. My parents got The New Yorker for the cartoons. But I began to read it for the show listings, week-after-week notices of the comings and goings on and off Broadway. One day in this era of my early adolescence, I was at Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago. I went to the record department because at that time they had a sample copy of every disc in the place set aside for customers to take into "listening booths." In each booth was a chair, a turntable, and a set of headphones. To me it was heaven, right there on State Street and Wabash Avenue. I could listen to anything, free. One day I chose the recording of a show I had read about in The New Yorker The Fantasticks" by Harvey Schmidt. Like the other shows, words and music worked together and kept the momentum of the show going. But then one song started, and it was for me like Proust munching on his proverbial cookie. Something clicked that made me see that memory, even mine, carries the potential of meaning and of art. You may know the song; it has entered, since the early '60s, into the "easy listening" repertoire. "Try to remember the kind of September when love was new and oh so mellow ... try to remember and follow, follow, follow ... . " Unlike the broad brush strokes of a Berlin, the easy sentiments of a Hammerstein, and the social operatics of Bernstein and Sondheim in "West Side Story," here was a Broadway song that required attention, that held up a mirror saying, "Try to remember ... and follow." It was as though the writer was saying, "Yes, there is a world 'out there' with which each of us must reckon. But there is a world within that is equally if not more rich with meaning. External events flip the switch of memory. And art - an ything - can flip that switch. But the journey into meaning is your own. Follow the clues which are all around you and within you." These were heady thoughts for a 13 year old. But they were mine as I sat in that booth, in that great store where, on that day, my worldview shifted again - thanks to Broadway, or, rather, off-Broadway this time. No blockbuster, this show. But it took me a step forward into contemplating an inexhaustibly rich part of my life. In the late '60s and early '70s, I saw a lot of Broadway shows and bought a lot of records. But when it was time for me to get my own charge accounts, and when the cost of theater tickets went through the roof, I drifted away from Broadway. I was also not particularly interested in the high-tech pseudo-operatic style which descended upon the musical stage in the '80s. Like a lot of the '80s, it seemed bloated. But a few months ago my youngest stepdaughter appeared in a high school production of "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim. I had heard of the play and noticed a TV production advertised for PBS. There was, however, no show-stopping song in this Sondheim work, no "Send in the Clowns" to make it a popular hit. I was lukewarm on seeing the show for any other reason than her part in it; I got chilly at the cost of the tickets. Ten bucks a piece for a big family buys many a trip to Pizza Hut. One of the parents called and asked if I would help with the refreshment table. I said I would. I went, made a quick run to the grocery for ice, saw that there were too many adults to help at the table and wondered what to do next. I sat in the lobby ticketless as the show began. I decided to read a copy of the Paris Review I had carried along. As I sat and as the show began, the girl who was selling tickets came out. "Don't you want to see the show?" she asked. "I don't have a ticket," I said. Not asking why, she opened the door and said, "Just go in and sit down. It's OK." The show began and I could see why it was $10 to get in; the costumes and sets were exceptional and costly. The musicians were professional. It was more like being at the Shubert than being in a high school theater. The story and songs interwove a group of fairy tales - Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood - a whole bunch. Everything went happily along until the characters decided to take charge of the forest and kill The Narrator. Then chaos ensued, when the unifying force of their little community was destroyed in an act of group hubris. "Pretty deep stuff," I thought. "It's almost theological, this part of killing The Narrator." But then, when the consequences of the murder became clear to the characters in the unraveling of lives which had been so carefully intertwined (if also controlled) by The Narrator, one of the characters began to sing a song entitled, "You are Never Alone." And there I was back in the booth at Marshall Field's. I was taken in a moment of surprise and wonder, back to the heart of being human. An affirmation of something that will never go away, something the self can express but not contain, something transcendentally true and usually discovered through the ordinary and extraordinary sufferings of existence. "You are never alone." I left the show that night knowing that it had happened again. In the midst of another Broadway musical that, lacking that popular show-stopper, will probably end up in the CD discount bin, I had gotten the best of what art gives and also reclaimed a trail of deeply personal moments. They are the indelible moments during which something has emerged from my encounter with a show - 30 years of epiphanies that make me feel sometimes like a Marco Polo of Broadway and, thereby, the explorer of my own heart.