Broadway's got nothin' on Tin Pan Alley, or so says Judge Bill Gibron.
I feel a song coming on!
It's amazing how, in just two short decades, the musical theater has lost all meaning as a provider of popular songs. It used to be, back when the ability to sing was valued by the record-buying public, that a Great White Way wonder proffered hit after hit into the always-begging Billboard charts. From classic tunes from the '50s and '60s (far too many to name), to the mellow, middle-of-the-road recitals of the late '70s (A Chorus Line's "What I Did For Love") and early '80s (Cats' craptacular classic "Memory"), the compositional skills of Tin Pan Alley rivaled the Brill Building and the unassociated singer/songwriters for chart-topping success.
But around the time Trevor Nunn brought the spectacle back to the stage, the show tune became an unknown quantity among pop singers. Now usually left to the cabaret performer (like Michael Feinstein), or the big band crooner on the comeback, few vocalists mine the millions of glorious musical theater scores for the next big hit single. This helps explain why the musical, one of the entertainment mainstays throughout most of the 20th century, is all but forgotten (the recent Chicago notwithstanding). Thankfully, we have the four-disc box set from Wellspring entitled The Songwriters Collection. Featuring 10 of Broadway and Hollywood's most famed faces singing and speaking about the songs and music they made famous, we can revisit a time when musical theater mattered. And while the episodes on this DVD are an intriguing look into the careers of some of music's merriest craftsmen, it also helps explain why the show tune has lost some of its glamour. And it's not because of the songs themselves.
Culled from the CBS Cable programs called The Song Writers and They Wrote the Songs, these spotlights on Broadway and Hollywood's inventive musical magicians are fairly simple in their premise and basic in their presentation. They Wrote the Songs (featuring Kander and Ebb, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, and Mitchell Parish) is a more intimate affair, with the featured artist working in front of a piano (or with a small band), almost always interacting with the audience. The Song Writers (comprising the other five shows here) has a more amphitheater feel, trying to maintain the connection with the crowd while offering several staged and show stopping set pieces. At approximately 51 minutes per show, there is over six hours of music and memories here. Individually, the eight episodes presented on the four discs are as follows:
• John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics)
The only problem here, and it's an issue that will plague all the performances in this box set, is that Kander and Ebb are songwriters, first and foremost. Oh sure, they can carry a tune in a bucket, but it's a rather leaky, creaky pail. Ebb is better than Kander, channeling Liza, her mother Judy Garland, a little Carol Channing, and even some Bea Arthur as he struts and strains his hour upon the stage. Kander sings as well, picking selective moments to moan his groaning baritone. But unlike other installments, where professional crooners are used to highlight ballads and cheerful crowd-pleasers, John and Fred have to be given credit for going it alone. How well you enjoy their "unique" vocalizations will have a great deal of impact on how you value this set. The historical significance in musical theater is one thing. The often off-key atonal qualities may combat some of the entertainment enthusiasm.
• Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics)
Part of the problem with this episode is the musical selection. This critic never liked the shows Lerner composed with Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady and Gigi being, in his opinion, so saccharine and coy they cause instant diabetic bashfulness upon exposure), and with the majority of the material coming from these overpraised pageants, the greatest hits mentality pervading the program is tough to endure (on the opposite end, if you love these shows and can get past Alan, you'll be in Great White Way wonder). But the reliance on less than exceptional vocal help (from the kind of singers you see in local dinner theater) doesn't help sell these shows. Lerner also leaves out a great deal of his catalog to focus on songs from a new show he was writing at the time (1983's Dance a Little Closer). Understanding that this tremendous flop closed after one performance gives you an idea of the material's sonic staying power.
• E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (lyrics)
While it may not seem fair to harp on the supporting song stylings of the soloists, their lack of personality and perception about the music they are massacring is a damn shame. When the gospel-flavored "That Great Come and Get It Day" sounds bereft of spirit and power, you know that the performances offered here are merely space savers, giving the real pros featured a chance to rest. And Yip is such a stalwart. His halting, haunted lilt, made gentler and gracious (but no more on key, mind you) over time really sells his catalog. His renditions of some of the character songs from The Wizard of Oz are just priceless. And like Kander and Ebb, he is there to entertain, not to lecture.
• Sheldon Harnick (lyrics)
Family favoritism raises its ugly head again as Harnick's wife, Margery Gary, is given ample room to ruin her Broadway name (though Fiorello was the only certified hit she ever starred in) with several screeching songs. Harnick also fancies himself a talented vocalist and quite the ham actor, and his turns with the other singers showcase how strangely deluded he is on both counts. Still, for anyone in love with this man's legacy on the stage, this episode will be a real entertainment experience. His behind-the-scenes stories are very interesting, and he even previews a couple of songs for shows that never made it to the Great White Way (including a tune-filled Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life). One gets the sense that he's rather pleased with himself over the staying power of Fiddler and its frequent revivals (including the recent turn by Alfred Molina as Tevye).
• Burton Lane (music)
It's great that Lane avoids the Lerner/Harnick syndrome on his Song Writers special. He is eager, aware, and self-effacing, responding with great joy and humility over the reception he gets from the crowd. He never oversells his songs and constantly champions the brilliant writers he's worked with. Maybe it's a lyricist's thing. Lerner and Harnick are both wordsmiths. Lane crafts the melodies and arrangement that people can whistle when they've forgotten the sequence of the stanzas. So maybe he feels less needy, not really required to sell himself and his catalog of common knowledge so overtly. This makes for a much more entertaining episode. There is even a little bit of pre-Unforgettable technology trickery in this episode. Lane had a chance to work with the great Ira Gershwin, on the tricky toe-tapper "Applause, Applause" (featured in the Hollywood movie musical Give a Girl a Break) and, through the magic of science, Lane accompanies an old demo track with Gershwin singing the song. It's a merry, almost moving match-up.
• Mitchell Parish (lyrics)
Another distracting issue with this show is the amazing amount of narrative Parish provides. He almost never shuts up, sometimes forgetting that it's his music, not his musings, that got him where he is. And then there is that awkwardness in front of the camera. When a close-up is called for, he tends to furrow his forehead even more and look through his eyebrows out at the audience. He seems stiff and uncomfortable, using old training tricks (hands at the waist, gesture from the shoulder) to keep from flailing like a fool. And beware. Unless you are in love with the archival nature of show business and can't wait to hear the songs that made Grandma raise her skirt above her knee in a randy manner, many of these so-called hits will be as memorable as J-Lo's recent recycled crap. Parish's songs are far from garbage. But they are so lost in the distance of time that, like his link to the stage, Parish's presence here is an example of a completely bygone era.
• Charles Strouse (music)
Since, at the time of the taping, Annie was still a huge runaway hit on Broadway, it's understandable that the last half of the show would focus on that syrupy, maudlin musical. But a little bit of the redheaded orphan goes a long way, and to both start and end the presentation with "Tomorrow" is a little disingenuous. It's just obvious pandering to popularity and the people. Noticeably, Strouse is one of the few composers who acknowledges his famous flops (the stupendously awful superhero show It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman), but only gives us snippets instead of succinct discussions. There are so many more compelling catastrophes on his list of career high/low lights (a musical version of Flowers for Algernon? a Bye, Bye, Birdie sequel?) that it would have been great to hear some of the lost songs from those shows. But, as said before, Strouse is not out to discuss his entire oeuvre. He is there to give the people what they want, and he delivers—bad voice and lame skits aside.
• Arthur Schwartz (music)
Schwartz is also, like Mitchell Parish before, mainly a writer of popular songs, hits for the crooners of yesteryear. Without that instant recognition from a memorable show tune or a recent chart-topper though, it can be quite a slog to sit through tune after arcane tune. This is perhaps even more of a factor with Schwartz, who seems to be a second-tier composer. Even though his songs resonate more immediately when you do finally identify them, his unknown numbers are vacant and void. Schwarz is also very over-prepared here, playing separate scenes with the cast (even staging a mini-read-through of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and providing dry rote readings of his history in show business. But even with a less annoying group of vocalists, Schwartz's sequence is, quite frankly, dull.
Overall, this is a recommended DVD release for anyone who is a fan of Broadway or the old fashioned standards of a bygone era. Kander and Ebb are the obvious standouts here, with Strouse, Lane, and Harburg all having their moments as well. Only two episodes really fail to connect and, not surprisingly, they are the ones farthest removed from either the theatrical experience (Schwartz) or a sense of reality (the loutish Lerner). That leaves the installments featuring Mitchell Parish and Sheldon Harnick. Both are buoyant and effervescent with the love of music, and each one features fantastic show tune moments. But both also suffer from the ego/era problem. Harnick knows he's important to the history of the Broadway stage and never lets us forget it. Parish is from another time, another place in both his style and the substance of his lyrics. Still, this means that more than two-thirds of this set is worth spending time with (fans who can overcome Lerner's litany of personal plaudits will think his episode is just peachy as well), and the amount of history and context the composers bring to the lineage of Broadway and Hollywood makes this a splendid, if incomplete, package.
On the sound and vision side, this set has issues. Recorded on videotape from 24 to 27 years ago, these shows look bland and flat. The colors (especially in the They Wrote the Songs installments) look positively unbalanced. Brown and beige are highlighted (it could be the late '70s fashions), but the skin tones all look overly tanned and bronzed, as if a trip to the salon was necessary before everyone showed up. Presented in 1.33:1 full screen, all the episodes have signs of age (grain, dirt) and transfer issues (compression, pixelation). Sonically, the original installments were recorded in Dolby Digital Mono, but play in an ersatz stereo mix that is all over the map. Spoken words get lost. Some singers are absolutely ear-piercing. Musical backing from a band comes and goes. None of these issues completely undermines the aural aspects of the show, but it would have been nice to have a decent soundtrack remix to give these songwriters and their music the proper respect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When one thinks of musical theater, the same names crop up; Rodgers and Hammerstein, Meredith Willson, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Webber and Rice, Sondheim, Hamlisch. And the classic shows they created—The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Funny Girl, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line—are the entities that helped shape, define, and reinvent the musical theater. So, you may ask, why aren't any of these bright lights flickering here? The answer is an obvious "who knows?" For one thing, some of these far more famed artists featured above had passed away or dissolved their partnerships by the time these shows were produced. Also, some are notoriously shy about discussing their work (Sondheim, for example). Maybe Lance Entertainment is holding back these more "commercial" shows for a Volume 2. Or maybe CBS Cable, the pay venture of the broadcast giant (a notorious coaxial flop back in the early '80s) couldn't afford these hallowed hall-of-famers. Whatever the case, their contribution to the Great White Way is terribly missed here, and would have made The Songwriters Collection a far more complete—and entertaining—entity.
Also, it would have been nice to have some better extras besides a short biography for each composer, a list of credits for the individual episodes, and some small, selective stills galleries.
Maybe it's a combination of factors that explains the musical score's falling out of the mainstream of media. With the cost of putting on a big-time Broadway show so prohibitive that a "sure thing" is almost mandated by the backers, this tendency toward a blockbuster mentality has the same affect as it does in Tinseltown: shows become bigger, slapdash, and more generic. None of the quirks that made a Kander and Ebb refrain or a Sondheim singsong soliloquy work wonderfully can be tolerated. Revivals rule the roost, and their elements have been picked and repicked over a million times or more. In the short attention span attitude of the public, there's got to be a hook, an instant connection, and an immediate payoff, or the proposed pop tune goes poof. And a musical number is almost never a disposable distraction. So when you watch these decades-old shows and imagine what it must be like to have Sheldon Harnick's fame, or Kander and Ebb's longevity, realize that they are the last of a dying breed. We are no longer enraptured with the stage show, could care less if a movie based on a musical is being made (unless it's for television), and have a hard time wrapping our post-millennial brains around character- and exposition-driven songs. Why they were ever popular may even be a question. The Songwriters Collection will go a great way to providing an answer. Few individuals in our society can claim a piece of immortality, creating something that lives on for eons. All egos and personality problems aside, the works from these talented men have managed to transcend their elements to live on in the cultural idiom. And maybe that's more important that Britney brutalizing your chorus with her chipmunk-on-crack crooning skills.
Though fundamentally flawed on a couple of levels, including the inclusion of non-Broadway composers and some staunch egos on the part of other participants, The Songwriters Collection is found not guilty and is free to go. Wellspring and Lance Entertainment are also found not guilty, although the preponderance of the evidence suggests that they be remanded for a new trial on the lesser included charge of offering an unknown package of heretofore unheard of TV shows without any historical or technical information. They are also found guilty of limited bonus content and sentenced to 10 months in Show Tune Solitary listening to the complete scores of Carrie and Big.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Songwriter Biographies
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