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02 July 2010

"I'm in the Romance Business..."

Well, duh.

Except the quote isn't from me or any of the usual suspects.

It's from the brilliant 20th century American pop composer and lyricist Frank Loesser, who wrote Guys and Dolls, which lots of people (including maybe me) think is the most perfect Broadway musical ever, and whose music and lyrics have taken permanent residence in my romantic imagination, and whom I'm sure is partly to be thanked or blamed for getting me into the business as well.

Tuesday was the hundredth anniversary of Loesser's birth, and the excellent folks at NPR did a lovely job commemorating it. I got my title quote from Fresh Air's Terry Gross's conversation with singer/pianist Michael Feinstein about Loesser's life and work (listen to it here and also check out the written info and links). And when Gross asked Feinstein to sing a Loesser song to close the interview, and he chose perhaps most the swooningly romantic one of all of them, "I've Never Been in Love Before" -- he introduced it with that line of Loesser's.

Unaccountably, Feinstein's performance isn't completely on the otherwise terrific Fresh Air link. But here's the great jazz musician Chet Baker doing it. I couldn't find a way to cut and paste the lyrics, which perhaps means I shouldn't, legally -- but you can read them here. As Feinstein says, they're simple. Gorgeously simple, a perfect capsule romance moment: the smart, witty, hitherto self-possessed lover (I thought my heart was safe/I thought I knew the score) newly and utterly humbled and transformed in the instant of emergent passion.

I'm listening to it right now via mp3, but I'm hearing it with the ears of my eleven-year-old self on the living room floor in front of on my parents' state-of-the-art stereo in its Danish Modern cabinet. An eleven-year-old who, needless to say, hardly "knew the score" (I didn't know anything except perhaps my own desperate desire to be that wonderfully wise and worldweary and yet that newly innocent. Mixing memory and desire again: no wonder I've always found "time-travel romance" a redundant concept).

Moving the phonograph needle back and forth over certain favorite tracks, the eleven-year-old wore down the vinyl of the 1950 RCA-Victor original cast recording as she soaked in a little romance-writer craft.

But this is wine
That's all too strange and strong
I'm full of foolish song
And out my song must pour

Since then, I've heard romance writers advise that metaphor is a good way to "heighten" emotional effect.

True enough, but there's more to say here.

Metaphor is language charged with energy. The effort to travel from point A to point B in the mind -- to make the link, let's say, between falling in love and getting tipsy -- finds its home in the words the mind finds itself shaping. Not because the lover intended to hype up the language at that moment, but because the work of making the connection, like an electrical current, took charge of the language -- transforming it as it flowed through it, and shocking everyone, most of all the astonished speaker/singer/lover.

"Physics for dummies," I call this sort of thing nowadays when I give erotic writing workshops: Because the best metaphors (or perhaps all of them) are instances of language involuntarily leaping out from somewhere not quite perceptible -- the capillaries, the forces binding the atoms of feeling and speech. In ecstasy (from the Greek for displacement).

The strange, strong wine of "I've Never Been in Love Before" would have been quite enough for one besotted pre-adolescent. But in happy fact it doesn't come by itself. It's the third element of a triptych of songs sung by the play's wonderfully, classically mismatched pair of lovers (straitlaced Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown, and suavest of Broadway lowlife gamblers, Sky Masterson):

The first song, "If I Were a Bell," is comic, happy, ditzy. Ask me how do I feel, demands a slightly tipsy Sarah, emerging from her cocoon of pious rectitude to answer the question itself -- again and again, from simile to exuberant (if still conditional) simile: if she were a bell, a gate, even a salad splashing her dressing. Not quite ecstatically metaphoric yet, but wonderful nonetheless -- check out Doris Day doing it (from before -- as the wit Oscar Levant put it -- she was a virgin). And read the lyrics here.

The second (and my lifetime favorite) is "My Time of Day," Sky introducing Sarah to Broadway at four AM, "a couple of deals before dawn." This one (since I know it by heart), I will type out in its short, spectacular entirety, for anyone who loves big cities, rain-washed pavement, the intimacy of empty streets, the miracle of shared solitude.

My time of day is the dark time a couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop and the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone

When the smell of the rain washed pavement
Comes up clean, and fresh, and cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold

That's my time of day, my time of day
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me

Here's Peter Gallagher doing it, from a "making of" TV show about the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival and album.

In the play, as in the Gallagher clip, the song ends by Sky bursting out, "Obediah. Obediah Masterson, that's my real name." To which he adds, wonderingly, "You're the first person I ever told it to."

I've always loved the moment when you're finally able to share a secret, as well as give a name to a passion. And though at first I thought that the scene in my Almost a Gentleman -- after David learns Phoebe's real name, and wanders (ecstatic, transported) through foggy, gaslit London streets -- was inspired by "Maria" from West Side Story, it seems clear enough now that "My Time of Day" had quite as much to do with it.

Perhaps because it's about sharing a secret, for many years I thought this song was my special secret. But as I learned (also from NPR), "My Time of Day" was Loesser's favorite too. (And I notice today, for the first time, that the smell of rain-washed pavement made it into my novella, "A House East of Regent Street" as well.)

How about you?

Do you cherish a secret passion for musicals? (Or not so secret, maybe, since the advent of Glee-- not to speak of that great moment in TV history, Buffy: The Musical.)

Which are your favorites? (Because although I coyly asserted that Guys and Dolls might possibly be the most perfect Broadway musical, I wouldn't feel right without a mention of West Side Story or Carousel)

And did you know that Frank Loesser, who wrote some 700 songs, wrote at least two that I half unconsciously believed had simply always existed in nature -- "Heart and Soul" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," (performed deliciously by Loesser and his first wife Lynn here and transcendantly by Ray Charles and Betty Carter here). Any other Loesser favorites?

And do you feel the same deep connection between song, metaphor, and romance that I do?

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23 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Oh, Pam, you hit me where I live! My parents were musical theatre buffs and owned nearly every original cast album known to man. I grew up "dancing around the living room," as one of the characters says in A CHORUS LINE (and I can remember seeing the original cast of that show with a standing-room ticket and realizing that it was a seminal moment in the theatre, for Theatre as an art form and for a stagestruck teen named Leslie who wanted to perform professionally in the musical theatre. By that time I had already starred in local youth theatre productions of PETER PAN, OLIVER! BY. BYE, BIRDIE, and GREASE! among others.

I practiced vocal mimicry by listening to Ethel Merman (I won a Merm-off at a cabaret in Greenwich Village in my 20s), Julie Andrews, and Gertrude Lawrence (who could never stay on pitch and my great-great uncle Samuel Margolis, an opera teacher, was tapped to coach her when she came to NY to perform in THE KING & I).

I firmly believe that there exists a musical theatre song for every mood and every moment of life that one can experience. GUYS & DOLLS resides in my personal pantheon of "perfect musicals," along with KISS ME KATE, MAN OF LA MANCHA, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and yes, A CHORUS LINE, among others.

My entire romantic soul is stirred when I hear the first strains of an overture. Tears fill my eyes. The theatre itself is a temple. And I am home.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I adore musicals. It's amazing how they can be so joyful, serious, and nuanced. I fight to convince my friends and family that musicals are just as interesting to watch as comedies, dramas, and thrillers (my mom recently fell in love with The Sound of Music) because many of them don't understand the form of a musical--they are convinced that characters burst into song and dance for no reason. Which, if you've watched many musicals, is false, since the song-and-dance sequences move the plot forward and enhance the characterizations.

Off the top of my head, I can name the following as favorites: Stormy Weather, Top Hat, Goldiggers of 1933, My Fair Lady, Funny Face, the 1930s version of Showboat, One Hour with You, Roberta, Cover Girl, Singin in the Rain, and An American in Paris.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad there are some other enthusiasts out there -- though I'm certainly not surprised to hear from Leslie.

And I agree with both of you, Leslie and Evangeline, that musicals can be emotionally subtle and apt, advancing the plot and telling emotional truth that couldn't be told any other way.

Rather like erotic episodes in a romance, if done well.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! Like you and Leslie, I too grew up on musicals, playing the records, going to performances with my family, singing the songs in the car. I too loved the Terri Gross interview with Michael Feinstein about Frank Loesser. I spent a lot of the next day singing "I've Never Been in Love Before" as part of doing vocal warm ups for a talk I had to give that evening.

I love so many musicals it's hard to pick a favorite. A Little Night Music, Anything Goes, She Loves Me, Sweeney Todd, Camelot, and Kiss Me Kate are definitely among my all time favorites, and I love Guys & Dolls. And West Side Story, The Music Man...

I love the way musical lyrics can distill emotion (reinforced when the words are put with the music). As I've blogged about, I get a lot of inspiration from classical music, but I also have moments in my books that are inspired by musical theater. The last scene between Charles & Mélanie in "Beneath a Silent Moon" inspired by Sondheim's "Being Alive" (from Company) and the opening owes a lot to his "No Place Like London" (from Sweeney Todd).

3:08 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I went around singing it all day too, Tracy. AND remembering my parents, the day after they saw THE KING AND I on Broadway, from way high up. They were transported by Gertrude Lawrence (coached, as Leslie said, by her great-Uncle -- imagine that degree of separation).

And I've also been remembering wonderful lyrics, like "a flat that would flatten the Taj Mahal," from the song "Guys and Dolls," neatly and inevitably bringing me to Cole Porter: "If a Harris pat means a Paris hat okay!" from "Always True to You Darlin' in My Fashion" (Kiss Me Kate).

And much much more...

3:54 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

LOVE "Guys and Dolls." I saw a terrific production of it at the National Theatre in the UK about 15 years ago.

My fav song that hits all the spots is "Til there was you" from the Music Man.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I *love* "Til There was You", Janet. I saw a great Music Man at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year (3 times) and that song brought tears to my eyes every time. My dad used to say that song summed up how he felt about my mom :-).

Another fabulous love song is "So In Love" from "Kiss Me Kate."

11:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The Music Man is another of those perfect musicals. I'm a total sucker for how "76 Trombones" and "Goodnight My Someone" are really the same song.

And I've been thinking of Leslie's wonderful comment that "there exists a musical theatre song for every mood and every moment of life that one can experience." Making me think of how some of my favorites are the songs of dark rue, like "So in Love." Or of fevered anticipation -- another alltime favorite, "Something's Coming" from West Side Story,

"With a click, with a shock,
Phone'll jingle, door'll knock,
Open the latch!
Something's coming, don't know when, but it's soon;
Catch the moon,
One-handed catch!

Around the corner,
Or whistling down the river..."

And of course, if you're from New York, you know the immediacy of "whistling down the river." The Hudson. On the west side of New York. No accounting, though, for the mysterious brilliance of "whistling"

Lyrics, of course, by a precocious young Stephen Sondheim (and I think I remember hearing that that might have been his favorite song from West Side Story).

7:27 AM  
Blogger Cecilia Grant said...

Ha! I wonder how many romance writers started out as musical fans. There's something so transcendent about yearning or exultation set to music. I can never quite buy the insta-love of Romeo and Juliet, but WSS's "Maria" sells it to me wholesale.

You've already hit on a lot of my favorites, but I would add the two young-lover duets - "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" - from The King and I. Partly because they're lovely and soaring and partly because I have vivid memories of my youthful self lying in front of a big cabinet stereo like the one in your picture and thinking, "Oh my God, he's saying he's imagined having SEX with her."

9:00 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You brought tears, Cecilia, with those memories. And the brighter side of yearning (but still orientalist) try "Night of My Nights," from Kismet. Set in (another kind of tears now)
Baghdad.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I can't say that I'm a huge fan, but I do love going to see the latest ones as they tour. The ones I've liked most over the past few years include AVENUE Q, WICKED, and SPAMALOT (so the ones that a bit off kilter, LOL!).

Have any of you seen BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE on Logo? I think it's far superior to GLEE.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't seen many of the latest ones, so I'm talking a little out of turn, but in the one we did see recently, The Heights, it seemed to us that every song was sort of about how the character had to be him or herself.

But then, I'm pretty far behind on lots of things, like not knowing whether my cable gets Logo. Logo?

2:39 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Yes ! Yes ! and Yes ! Most of my professional career was spent singing opera, but I made my musical "bones" in musicals in graduate school. And I grew up listening to my parents' albums of all the great musicals. I think my mother always wanted me to be Julie Andrews. I surprised my parents by choosing opera.

I had the privilege of coaching several of my private voice students in their roles in Guys and Dolls and South Pacific and it was so much fun! The best part was watching these teenagers discover the wonder of this glorious music. I've always told them that musicals are America's real operas.

And oh yes they are so romantically glorious to sing. Songs like - If Ever I Would Leave You and On the Street Where You Live. SIGH

I was lucky enough to sing the role of Maria in my grad school production of West Side Story and I Feel Pretty became one of my standard encores at the end of concerts and recitals.

The music, of course, is beautiful, a perfect canvas on which to paint, but the words - those are the colors and the best part is that they paint a unique picture of love and romance with every artist who sings them.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

Not a huge fan of musicals, but a devotee of opera, which works a lot of overlapping subject matter. Some of the most climactic moments in Wagner, for example, are rather unsubtle musical metaphor ;)

One songwriter I do love is Cole Porter. Since you're discussing metaphor, here's Ella Fitzgerald singing Just One of Those Things.

(I might have chosen the Doris Day-in-drag version for you, but it cuts out all those lovely literary allusions! The song is just not the same without Dorothy Parker and Eloise and Abelard.)


As Dorothy Parker once said
To her boyfriend, "fare thee well"
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced,
"It was swell, Isabel, swell"

As Abelard said to Eloise,
"Don't forget to drop a line to me, please"
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo's ear,
"Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear"

It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings
One of those bells that now and then rings
Just one of those things

It was just one of those nights
Just one of those fabulous flights
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings
Just one of those things

If we'd thought a bit, of the end of it
When we started painting the town
We'd have been aware that our love affair
Was too hot, not to cool down

So good-bye, dear, and amen
Here's hoping we meet now and then
It was great fun
But it was just one of those things

8:52 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Louisa, how wonderful to actually perform those songs.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

It's hard for me to choose the perfect musical. I love G&D because the songs are great and reveal so much about the characters. I also think Kiss Me, Kate works well as a musical--and like Evangeline I'm a sucker for those great movie musicals!

I'm having fun right now learning lots of Loesser tunes for a show on August 21 (if anyone lives near western Massachusetts, please come!). Here's my take on Loesser plus a poster for the show:

http://www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com/?p=7763

Happy singing/humming/whatever....

11:34 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

That lead-in is wonderful, RfP. Thanks. And thanks for the Ella Fitzgerald.

But you didn't seriously think I was gonna blow off Doris Day in Drag, did you? When her movie Annie Oakley was one of the earliest inspirations for my Phizz Marston in Almost a Gentleman? Check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_xmujSyxkU. ;-)

While as for opera, have you seen the movie Aria, esp the Liebstod section?

11:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

@tinky, Thanks for the link to your Loesser post.

And re your show -- Do they really say break a leg? If so, more I cannot wish you.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

They DO say "Break a leg," Pam, although I have tripped several times while performing so I try not to take it TOO personally. Love the Loesser lyric in your commment.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Pam, you're in San Francisco. I'm sure you get Logo (it's the gay channel).

5:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

No Logo on my limited basic cable plan (or whatever they call it). I'm afraid I still am of the generation that thinks free TV is some kind of constitutional right. ;-)

And Tinky, I love that you recognized the lyric.

6:17 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I love musicals. It is hard to choose a favorite one. Oklahoma, West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and now my all time favorite for the music, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I could sing all day to the Beauty and the Beast. I can empathize with Bell and understand Beast.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Susan/DC said...

My sisters and I used to play my mom's records of Broadway musicals over and over so we could write down the lyrics. Drove my mother crazy, but we adored musicals and saw every traveling company that came to town.

Don't think anybody's mentioned anything by Rodgers & Hart or Cole Porter or Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess". P&B is sometimes considered an opera, but I think that no matter what you call it the music is stunning. One of my regrets in life is that I don't have the voice to sing "Summertime". Another one of my favorite songs is from a recent musical, "The Last Five Years": "Jamie's Decided".

10:31 AM  

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