ON THE RECORD: The Gay Life

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Gay Life
 
This week's column discusses the musical significance of the newly reissued Schwartz & Dietz musical from 1961, The Gay Life.

THE GAY LIFE [DRG 19069]

DRG, which has grown to specialize in the collected works of Barbara Cook, has now brought us Barbara at her most pristine. (I would say Barbara at her best, but how does one compare Cunegonde, Marian, Amalia et al?)

The Gay Life was one of those promising-but-problematic musicals that opened and closed and soon disappeared. It was not the biggest flop of its time, which was 1961. That sort of position is typically filled by a theatre-party blockbuster from the Big Boys: Mr. President, say, from Berlin, Logan, Lindsay, and Crouse. The Gay Life was just another, sad failure.

The show had Grade A Broadway names for songwriters, at least. Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz redefined the sophisticated revue starting in 1929 with The Little Show; peaking in 1931 with their "Dancing in the Dark" revue, The Band Wagon; and splitting in 1937 after two unhappy book musicals. Schwartz then moved on to lyricists like Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin, while Dietz concentrated on his day job as director of promotion at M-G-M (where he came up with Leo the Lion, among other things). Dietz wrote the occasional musical, working with Vernon Duke, and reunited with Schwartz for one last revue in 1948. After bidding Hollywood adieu in 1957, Dietz teamed with Schwartz once more and stormed Broadway.

But it was a different Broadway, the land of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Schwartz & Dietz, working together and separately, had failed with book musicals again and again. Their name still meant something, circa 1961; their song catalogue had been bolstered by the 1953 film The Bandwagon (which had nothing to do with their fabled stage revue, other than some songs and leading man Fred Astaire). In retrospect, it's safe to say that Schwartz & Dietz shouldn't have lifted a lead pencil without a strong and knowledgeable librettist, or at least director, in the room. Michael and Fay Kanin had enjoyed a moderate run with their 1958 stage adaptation of the Kurosawa film Rashomon (although the pairing of Claire Bloom and Rod Steiger stirred up far more excitement than the dialogue). But the Kanins were of Hollywood. Michael had co-authored the well-remembered 1942 hit Woman of the Year, and the pair had more recently scripted Teacher's Pet for Doris Day and Clark Gable. Perhaps it was assumed that Michael's kid brother, Garson Kanin, would pitch in if necessary; but Gar, even with his reputation as Broadway laughmaker, never had much success with musicals.

Producer Kermit Bloomgarden presumably imagined he could personally navigate any bumps in the road. Longtime producer of Arthur Miller, with Death of a Salesman and others to his name, he had entered the field of tuners with Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella—a large and bounteous musical—and one that managed to pay off nicely. Bloomgarden's next was another eccentric exercise, which turned out to be the massive hit The Music Man. So why shouldn't he (and associate producer/musical director Herbert Greene) produce more musicals? So they did; four flops in a row, starting with The Gay Life and including Anyone Can Whistle. So much for Kermit, the music man.

Helming the Schwartz-Dietz-Kanin adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol was a novice director. I wasn't sitting in Kermit's office at 1545 Broadway—which if I remember correctly is roughly where the stage of the Marquis is today—but I can only imagine that he first went after Jerry Robbins. (For about twenty years, everybody first went after Jerry Robbins.) Can't do, but why don't you talk to my assistant director on Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story and Gypsy? After Bloomgarden was turned down by everyone else—mind you, I'm just supposing here— he went ahead with Jerry Robbins's assistant.

Whether the fault rests with the assistant, or the librettists who wouldn't listen to the assistant, or the producer, we can't at this point begin to say. As with so many other musicals, the director got the blame and the ax. He was replaced in Detroit by choreographer Herb Ross, who couldn't fix the problems either, leaving The Gay Life stubbornly unconvincing. (Walter Kerr: "Presumably the actors have been guided into their arch, perspiring and mechanical toy-shop posturing by director Gerald Freedman, whose staging is almost everywhere uncertain. Surely they are at the mercy of their librettists, whose flair is approximately as continental as a box of Cracker-Jack.")

All of this, my friends, is beside the point, which is that the cast album of The Gay Life, is back in circulation courtesy of DRG. Composer Schwartz wrote a generally delicious score featuring three absolute stunners, "Magic Moment," "Something You Never Had Before" and "Why Go Anywhere at All?"

Schwartz (1900-84) was a prime melodist; at his best, he was right up there with contemporaries Rodgers, Gershwin and Porter. What he did not have was a sustained career; once Dietz chose Hollywood over Broadway, Schwartz was left without an Ira, an Oscar, or a Larry Hart. (Hart and Schwartz had been fellow counselors at Brant Lake summer camp. When Schwartz decided to quit the law, the already-established Hart helped propel his friend's career. In fact, Schwartz's first song hit—the slyly whimsical "Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"—took its melody from a Schwartz-Hart camp song, "Love to Lie Awake in Bed.")

Schwartz continued to write songs into the early sixties; the best of the non-Dietz titles came with Fields on Broadway (like "Make the Man Love Meâ!= and "I'll Buy You a Star" in the worthy-but-unworkable A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and in Hollywood with Frank Loesser and other assorted lyricists. (If you don't know "A Gal in Calico," you should!) While in Hollywood, Schwartz also served as producer of two Broadway-related films, the Kern Gershwin musical Cover Girl and Cole Porter's pseudo-biographical Night and Day.

But by Broadway standards, Schwartz had an underutilized career, which ended two years after The Gay Life with the disastrous Mary Martin vehicle Jennie. (With yet another stunning ballad!) If I were to compile a list of the best show tunes of the twentieth century, which I'm not about to do, Schwartz would easily grab more than a dozen spots—which is remarkable for a writer with no successful book musicals.

I expect I've already said enough to recommend The Gay Life. As good as "Magic Moment" and "Something You Never Had Before" are, Cook sends them soaring. Let's visit once more with friend Kerr, who—after panning everything else to death—said "Whatever those other people are in, Miss Cook is in a success; her head and our hearts are high." "Those other people" is pretty much all encompassing, including the librettists, director, and costars Walter Chiari (first billed) and Jules Munshin (third billed). Somebody named Jeanne Bal does exceedingly well with "Why Go Anywhere at All?" although it didn't do her much good; her part was cut after the opening, along with the song(!), and she appears to have never made it back to Broadway.

There is yet another reason for those interested in the Broadway sound to go out and buy this CD. (Or stay in and buy it, with a flick of the mouse.) The Gay Life marked an important step forward in the art of orchestration. Don Walker did one of his finest jobs, here; or, rather, Walker changed course and came up with a new philosophy of orchestration.

The more creative Broadway orchestrators of the time had brought many innovations to the land of Russell Bennett, especially through the 1950s. Walker, on The Gay Life, seems to have made a stunning realization: this show takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna, so let's make it sound like turn-of-the-century Vienna. Listen to the overture: what you hear, in the very first magic moment, is a cadenza from the cimbalom.

You don't know what a cimbalom is, eh? I didn't either. It turns out to be a mallet instrument, something like a xylophone with piano strings instead of bars. I expect it was relatively commonplace back in the days when they had live musicians in Hungarian tearooms. (Walker presumably picked up a thing or two from Sigmund Romberg, who brought the young radio arranger to Broadway in 1934.)

This cimbalom introduction is not a mere stunt, mind you; the instrument is threaded through the score, as soloist (like in "Magic Moment") or ensemble player. Walker did not stop there. Viola, cello, bass, piano, harp, sax, guitar—mainstays of Broadway musicals of the time—were omitted altogether. Along with the cimbalom, Walker features an accordion; relatively traditional-sized wind and brass sections; and violins. Gypsy violins; twelve of them! with four soloists. The expanded violin section provided an unaccustomed richness, with three French horns—and, in non solo spots, the cimbalom -- filling in for the missing violas and cellos. Broadway had never heard such an instrumentation before, and hasn't heard one since (as there has never been a score calling for cimbalom and twelve violins). Variations from the usual pit setup had been attempted in the past, notably by Bennett. (For Kern's The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), which told of a romance between an opera composer and a pop songwriter, Bennett featured three pianos; for Porter's Out of This World (1950), he used two heavenly harps.)

But Walker appears to have learned a lesson: That you can, and really ought to, color the orchestra in the same way a costume designer dresses the actors. Don followed up on it with his very next musical, yet another Broadway-Viennese score. But She Loves Me was everything that The Gay Life was not; an integrated musical with the highest quality ingredients in virtually every department. The She Loves Me orchestration is nowhere near as eccentric. All Don needs is the accordion, which sets the sound—once again, in the opening bars of the overture—and keeps us firmly rooted, musically, in the time and place. For Cabaret and Zorba—two musicals that have two-sided scores—Walker (and composer John Kander) came up with split orchestras, one to serve the "authentic" numbers and the other to deal with the musical theatre work.

This sort of thinking has been followed by the best orchestrators ever since; it only seems natural that the pit of Company should look radically different than what you have at A Little Night Music, to say nothing of Pacific Overtures. Whereas musicals like Oklahoma! South Pacific and My Fair Lady, diverse in setting and tone, received highly professional but relatively similar treatment from the orchestrator.

Enough said. The Gay Life met with almost universal thumbs down on stage, but the CD will win you.

Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com(mailto:Ssuskin@aol.com)

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