ON THE RECORD: The Color Purple and "Harold Arlen and His Songs"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Color Purple and "Harold Arlen and His Songs" This week’s column discusses the Oprah Winfrey musical The Color Purple and the brilliant "Harold Arlen and His Songs," paired with a re-release of the original cast album of the Arlen-Mercer musical St. Louis Woman.
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THE COLOR PURPLE [Angel EMI 0946 3 42954]
There is no rule that you’ve got to have Broadway experience to write a Broadway musical. Every composer was, at some point, a beginner; recent musicals like The Light in the Piazza, Hairspray and Avenue Q suggest that first-timer Broadway composers might be better off. Let it be said, though, that the composer and lyricists of those three musicals — along with the second-time author of the delectable Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — are all blessed with what you might call stage smarts. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who came from pop land to join forces for The Color Purple, aren’t. Blessed with stage smarts, that is. Sure, you don’t gotta know the territory, as the first time author of The Music Man might have said. But it helps.

The Color Purple is one of those musicals that you sit there rooting for. At least, I sat there rooting for it, and despaired as various weaknesses were revealed. These songwriters can write songs, yes; they have written what seems like dozens of them. But none of them land, at least for me. I suppose they will grow on me with repeated listenings to the cast album, but musical theatre is a field where you can’t rely on repeated listenings. If the audience tunes out midway through the first act, it’s unlikely that they will buy another ticket. Or even a cast album.

The new musical, produced by Oprah Winfrey — as you might have heard — puts me in the mind of a sunny field filled with butterflies, purple and otherwise. Capturing the butterfly with your point-and-shoot takes patience; as soon as you zero in on one, he or she is up and off to another petal. That is how the songs of The Color Purple rush by, even the ones that strike you as interesting. You want to absorb them and savor them, but before they can register you’re off to the next. Part of the problem surely stems from the source material, which is so loaded with characters and events and necessary information that many accomplished theatre writers might well have thought twice about tackling it. This hampers not only the librettist, Marsha Norman, but the songwriters as well. The score has great variety, yes; but after one viewing and several listenings, none of the songs has yet managed to pierce my emotions. And that’s what needs to happen in the musical theatre, especially with a piece that is conceived to make us feel.

Even so, I find The Color Purple admirable and respectable and worthy, and I wish it a long life with legions of fans. The score is admirably performed, with LaChanze heading a raft of fine performers and musicians; the authors benefit from the expertise of the impressive musical staff (Jonathan Tunick, Linda Twine, Kevin Stites); and the recording itself is first rate. Did the score grab me in the theatre or on the CD? Not yet, I’m afraid. But I would certainly advise readers to see, and hear, for themselves.

ST. LOUIS WOMAN/HAROLD ARLEN AND HIS SONGS [DRG 19078]
Sometime in the late 1970s, I happened upon a used record store on Broadway, just below Astor Place. Out of the bin leapt a 1955 Capitol LP called "Harold Arlen and His Songs," with the composer singing 12 of them backed by Peter Matz and a small orchestra. The record, which looked rather scuffed, turned out to be barely playable. Sonically, that is; even so, it quickly turned into one of my very favorite records. I have spent the last 30 years looking for a copy in better condition, and urging every record producer I’ve come across to reissue the thing.

And here it is. One playing, and I am triply convinced. Here are some of the very finest American songs of the 1930s and 1940s, performed by one of the most distinctive singers of the day. “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” goes one of Arlen’s classics (not included on this album). Harold not only has the right to sing the blues, but the ability to sing and write them. Sometimes I think that he didn’t actually compose these songs; he simply felt them and jotted down the melodies. Arlen was not in his prime in 1955; the late Ed Jablonski, Arlen’s friend and biographer, told me that by this point Harold had already descended into deep melancholy. But you wouldn’t know it from this album. The blues are blue, yes, but the up numbers are positively joyous.

Listen to the first track, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and you’ll conclude that this is the best Arlen ever. Until you hear the next song, “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” which puts you under a spell until “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The fourth song seemingly tops them, an absolutely shimmering “Let’s Fall in Love.” And then comes “One for My Baby” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” It’s not that he keeps topping himself; it’s just that every song sounds this good. “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” even that song about the rainbow in Kansas. As a topper, he includes his then-recent “Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree,” hardly a classic but oh how it takes off!

Peter Matz moved to New York in 1954, soon finding work as rehearsal pianist and dance arranger of Arlen’s musical House of Flowers. Arlen knew a good musician when he heard one, and within months he was in the recording studio with Matz for this album. The orchestrations are just right; these are very famous songs, many of them, but everything sounds fresh and new and jazzy. I’ve tried to track down the names of the musicians, but to no avail. Let it be said that they are as good as the conductor and the singer. And let it also be said that the two LPs Arlen recorded after "Harold Arlen and His Songs" can’t begin to compare — even if one of them, the 1966 "Harold Sings Arlen (With Friend)," featured a friend called Barbra.

"Harold Arlen and His Songs" is backed by the truncated original cast album of the 1946 Arlen-Mercer musical St. Louis Woman. Rather, St. Louis Woman is the main attraction; if you look for this CD under the title "Harold Arlen and His Songs," I doubt you’ll find it. St. Louis Woman is a flawed show with some marvelously good songs — “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Had Myself a True Love,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home” — and a cast album well worth having. The original recording had drastically primitive sound; this new remastering helps things immeasurably, improving on the improvements of the earlier CD release.

But for me, the news is that "Harold Arlen and His Songs" is finally back in circulation, and better than ever. Arlen fans rejoice. As for listeners who are not yet under the master’s spell, this makes a perfect introduction to the man, and a small sampling of his great catalogue. —Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.