By Steven Suskin
27 Jun 2004
The name "Hugh Martin" has appeared in this column on several recent occasions, and here it is again. And not unfittingly; Mr. Martin is alive and well and turning 90 on August 11. This puts him, as far as I can tell, in the number one slot on the Oldest Living Broadway Composer list. And a mighty good composer, too.
Martin came to town as a singer and vocal arranger. He more or less challenged Richard Rodgers to give him a chance. Rodgers — with nothing to lose — did so. "Sing for Your Supper," in The Boys from Syracuse (1938), put Martin on the map. Within a few seasons he did arrangements for folks like Berlin, Porter and Duke, who knew a good thing when they heard it. Martin's two early Rodgers-Abbott musicals resulted in the chance to write a brand-new Broadway musical. Best Foot Forward (1941), by Martin and his partner Ralph Blane, propelled the pair to M-G-M. They hit it big with the 1944 movie musical, "Meet Me in St. Louis," which included three evergreen song hits for star Judy Garland. (Blane wrote "The Trolley Song," while Martin wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Boy Next Door.")
After service in World War II, Martin (sans Blane) returned to Broadway with another Abbott musical, Look, Ma, I'm Dancin' (1948). All along, he continued to turn out vocal arrangements for musicals like Jule Styne's High Button Shoes (1948) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949). A live audio tape of the latter musical reveals, among other things, that Carol Channing was jaw-droppingly funny and that Martin's vocal arrangements might be the best ever heard on Broadway. (The Blondes cast album [Sony Broadway SK48013] gives you an idea, although the sound is hazy, and Martin's most important sequence is omitted.)
The outsized success of Blondes gave a Broadway platform to Styne, until then best known as a Hollywood hitmaker. Jule, who seems to have wanted to make up for his late arrival on the local scene, decided to become an all-purpose king of Broadway like his contemporary Richard Rodgers. As he was casting around for a big, expensive musical to produce, Martin walked in with a project. An abandoned project, actually. Hugh and his Look Ma collaborators Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had written a musical set in Paris called — what else? — Paris, France. They abandoned it after a draft or two, leaving Martin with a few suitably Broadway-French songs.
This was enough to get Jule working. Martin and co-producer Harry Rigby optioned Ferenc Molnar's play The Good Fairy, which had been successfully filmed in 1935; Preston Sturges, who wrote the screenplay, was called upon as librettist. He would be relieved on the road, replaced (without credit) by S. J. Perelman and, finally, Abe Burrows. Director John C. Wilson, of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was dumped too, with Burrows taking on the staging (also without credit).
The show was, by all accounts, a mess. According to Jule Styne, who was sometimes given to wild hyperbole, Make a Wish — capitalized at $150,000 — went on to lose $450,000, which was a fortune in 1951. (The big spring musical, the ultra-lavish The King and I, cost $360,000.) Also according to Styne, when things got out of hand during the tryout, he sold his share of the show (and future liabilities) to Alexander H. Cohen, who had come in as co-producer. Make a Wish marked the first in a string of nine fiscally disastrous musical comedies for Cohen, who had been company manager of Blondes.
So much for the history of the thing. Hugh Martin's score is a delight. Not an unforgettable landmark like that winter's Guys and Dolls. Something less distinguished, admittedly, but nevertheless loaded with the sort of fun that seems to have disappeared from the Broadway musical. Until very recently, that is, thanks to folks like Shaiman & Wittman and Lopez & Marx.
Make a Wish features only one of those stunning songs that sets composer Martin apart, the ballad "When Does This Feeling Go Away?" Martin works his way along, melodically and harmonically, with intervals and combinations that you can't imagine anyone coming up with unless his name was Gershwin or Arlen. Listen to the way he reverses course as he begins his B section, and then his uncanny transition back to the A. A lovely song, in a league with Martin's "Ev'ry Time," "Tiny Room," and those twin Judy Garland hits.
What makes the Make a Wish cast album so entrancing, though, is the way songwriter Martin is supported by vocal arranger Martin. There are no less than five perfectly satisfactory songs that are pushed way over the top by the arrangements (and the performance of the arrangements). "That Face" is a perfect example of how a vocal arrangement can enhance a song. This is a tuneful boy-girl duet, with an undercurrent of friction. (The lyric is in the manner of "All 'er Nothin'", while the music swings in a manner altogether different.)
The song begins with a combative verse between the pair. The boy claims that he "never touched a drop last night"; the unbelieving girl sarcastically counters with "congratulations / on all your abnegations." He then goes into a refrain about the girl's "sunny, funny face." She counters with same, about his "darlin', snarlin' face / though it's an eyeful / I stifle / each yen." They then go back into a truncated version of the verse "never touched a drop last night." The girl's "congratulations" are picked up by the chorus, who go into an extended variation on a two-bar abridgement of the verse. They then launch into a vocalized section of new material. "Ba-dum dum dum dum bay um," they sing, as the band launches into swing time (but I mean, real swing time). This is followed by a grand finale based on the final half of the refrain, extended by a grand coda. As the song comes to an end, it doesn't — there are some hand-claps, and they are off into yet another new swinging section.
They don't write vocal arrangements like this anymore, for several reasons. Few people can write them, for beginners. People like Stephen Sondheim don't need them; he can unflinchingly weave his principal characters into multi-part choral tapestries (as in "A Weekend in the Country" or "Sunday," for example). It would make no sense in a Sondheim musical for the chorus to come out and perform a specialty. John Kander, too, has displayed this ability, although this facet of his work is usually overlooked.
Most important, though, is the changed economic state of the Broadway musical: vocal arranger Martin had 18 singers to work with, which allowed him to form all sorts of choral chords with multiple voices on each part. Choreographer Gower Champion had 18 dancers, too, with the ability to draw extra bodies from the singing ensemble. The ensemble shrunk in the late sixties and early seventies, until you were lucky to get sixteen singer dancers, with the emphasis on the latter. Yes, everybody has their own body mic nowadays; but that can't approximate the texture of 16 or 18 singers who can sing.
"Who Gives a Sou?" is another better-than-average song that is lifted to the rafters by the vocal. (This one, sung by the penniless law-student hero, expresses the sentiment that "the Left Bank's the Right Bank for me.") Ditto the heroine's "Over and Over," another buoyant waltz (like "Sou"). The heroine's opening number, "I Wanna Be Good 'n Bad," also has an extended vocal, for the female chorus. This has one of those trick lyrics: "I wanna be sweet / sweet and hot," "I wanna be chaste / chased by men."
The lyrics, all through, share in the fun. Martin revels in phrases like "we submit just for your elucidation" — set to music! — and puckish rhymes like "it couldn't be much drearier / it bores us to hyster-i-er." Wordplay like this glides by effortlessly, adding to Make a Wish's easygoing charms. Martin has publicly cited assistance on the lyrics from Timothy Gray, who went on to collaborate with him on his next musicals Love from Judy and High Spirits.
The four principals contribute to the CD's immense likability. Nanette Fabray, who through a decade of increasingly prominent appearances appeared poised to be the next Mary Martin, achieved sole star billing on Make a Wish. The show's failure, though, halted her ascent. (She turned up a prime part in the 1954 film "The Band Wagon," after which she moved to TV and Sid Caesar.) The strong-voiced Stephen Douglass was the romantic lead. He had played Billy Bigelow in London, and more recently in the 1949 return engagement of Carousel (which transferred from City Center to the Majestic); he also took on John Raitt's role in The Pajama Game. Douglass went on to sturdily-sung appearances in The Golden Apple, Damn Yankees, Rumple and 110 in the Shade. In at least two of these cases, he seems to have been the guy they went to when they couldn't get Raitt. Douglass might not have had that extra twinkle in the eyes that spells star quality, but he could sure sing.
These were the days when you still split the chores between a romantic couple and a comedic/dancing couple. The latter shoes were filled by the tip top pairing of Harold Lang and Helen Gallagher. Lang was playing the same part, more or less, as he essayed in Martin's Look Ma, I'm Dancin'. (He hit it big between the two Martin musicals, with Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate.) Gallagher, though, must have been quite a surprise. An ensemble dancer in shows for Robbins and De Mille, she made a splash as a dancing housemaid (and in Robbin's "Bathing Beauty Ballet") in Styne's High Button Shoes. But who knew she could sing? That voice, first heard here in the nifty boy-girl duet "Suits Me Fine," must have been startling in 1951. I don't know how many people sitting in the house immediately thought, here was Broadway's next potential leading lady. Styne apparently did, and acted on it. (See below.)
Make a Wish also marked the first important Broadway shot for Champion, who got superlative notices for his two ballets. One of them, "The Sale," is included on the cast album. (The music is composed by Richard Pribor, whose credit on the LP has been overlooked on the CD.) This madcap romp took place in a department store. From the descriptions I've heard, it seems to have foreshadowed Gower's "Shriner's Ballet" in Bye, Bye, Birdie. The orchestrations are by Philip Lang and Allan Small, who had earlier collaborated on Billion Dollar Baby; Styne's number-one conductor Milt Rosenstock is at the podium. But the vocal arranger is the standout member of this musical department.
So this first-time-on-CD Make a Wish is most welcome. To add to the package, Sepia includes 24 minutes worth of Douglass singing romantic ballads of the thirties (mostly), most of them from a four-sided 1950 set he recorded during the London run of Carousel. (Douglass also contributed a brief essay for the new liner notes.) These recordings turn out to be much better than you might think. We get to hear 14 songs, with half of them by Kern and Hammerstein (although not necessarily writing together). These are classic standards and good songs both, well sung and with unobtrusive arrangements that let us hear what the writers presumably intended. Since these songs come from the pre-original cast album age, these Douglass recordings make a valuable bonus to the delightful Make a Wish. Continued...