Roger Edens, the songwriter and producer so responsible for the sound associated with the great MGM musicals of the 1950s, and with songs sung by Ethel Merman and Judy Garland, has been in the shadow of the other songwriters over the years.
Singer Morgan Sills wants to change that. He's shining a light on the late writer, in a Manhattan cabaret show, The Roger Edens Songbook, Feb 12, 19 and 26.
Musical direction and arrangements for Sills' gig at Danny's Skylight Room are by Ed Goldenschneider, conductor of Broadway's Urinetown. Piano, bass and drums sweeten the show, which Sills hopes to tour around and record.
Texas native Edens played in the pit of Broadway's Girl Crazy in 1930 and began a lifelong professional relationship with Ethel Merman, writing and arranging songs for her and coaching her. He would later write songs for Take a Chance and Happy Hunting. In Hollywood, he was the musical supervisor for the "Freed Unit" — the unit that produced the major mid-century color musicals, including "The Harvey Girls," "The Band Wagon," "Singin' in the Rain" — at MGM. It was in Hollywood that he first worked with Judy Garland. They would be collaborators over the years, and she would sing his specialty material in concerts and in films. He won three Academy Awards for musical scoring ("On the Town," "Easter Parade," "Annie Get Your Gun") and penned such quirky movie musical numbers as "You're Awful," "On the Town," "Think Pink," "Pass That Peace Pipe," "Bonjour Paris," "Minnie From Trinidad" and "The French Lesson." Edens died of cancer in 1970. One of his best known instrumental compositions was the brief and fetching vamp that leads into the title number of the MGM picture, "Singin' in the Rain."
His songwriting collaborators over the years have included Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Leonard Gershe, E.Y. Harburg and Arthur Freed. North Carolina native Morgan Sills is making his New York cabaret debut with The Roger Edens Songbook. He toured nationally in Forever Plaid and appeared in the Off-Broadway revival of Flahooley. In putting together his cabaret show, he wanted to tackle material that isn't done-to-death, he said, and he has been a longtime fan of Edens' work.
"I wanted to do something different that has never been done before," Sills told Playbill On-Line. "It's like sharing a secret, that's the joy of this."
The Roger Edens Songbook includes "Nobody," "Moses Supposes," "Pass That Peace Pipe," "Eadie Was a Lady," "Our Love Affair," "Think Pink," "Minnie from Trinidad," "Bonjour Paris," "Born in a Trunk," "The French Lesson," "Here's to the Beautiful Girls," "You'll Never Know" and more.
Sills interviewed or corresponded with Edens' friends and colleagues (Gershe, Janet Leigh, Doris Day, Hugh Fordin, Marti Stevens) and researched material at the Roger Edens Archives at the University of Southern California.
"One of the things I'm proudest of in the show is that every song ties back to Roger, to his life or to what he believed in putting on the screen," Sills said.
Sills' first encounter with Edens' work? He was a kid and saw "You'll Never Know" (not the Harry Warren version) in a picture called "Lady Be Good," with Ann Sothern and Eleanor Powell. He assumed it was a Gershwin song. It turned out to be an Edens interpolation in a hodge-podge score.
"We have a lot in common," Sills said. "He was a Southerner, a big tall guy, also very genteel."
Tickets are $15, plus a $10 food/drink charge. Danny's Skylight Room is at 346 W. 46th Street in Manhattan. Performances play 7 PM Tuesdays (Feb. 5 saw the debut of the act). For reservations, call (212) 265-8133.
— By Kenneth Jones