That snooty critic fart Andrew Sarris once mock-praised my old boss Rouben Mamoulian for his early cinema innovations that never quite caught on. Hah! When’s the last time you were so proud of your old boss’s work you wanted to make sure the world never forgot it? So—here’s the most audacious musical film sequence ever directed, which magically links up the movie’s two singing stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald:
Before I go into more of my bonny’s musical missteps that have done their part to perturb me to no end, I think it’s only fair to first share the best clips available of John Wilson’s own 24-year-old orchestra—cannily named, as I have mentioned, The John Wilson Orchestra—which, out of over 200(!) on YT in ten years, come down to really only about 4, maybe 5 of these “best clips” between 2009-2019.
This is from their 2012 show The Broadway Sound (@43:50) at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London, which seats 5200, with standing room for 1300 on the ground floor (tickets for which go for only 6L and for which people camp out overnight at the box office like it was Winterland). This is pertinent, because it seems like The JWO only does its best work when it can blast the roof off a barn.
I had the old Ben Bagley recording and the 1983 Broadway revival recording (conducted by John Mauceri) of the Rodgers & Hart show On Your Toes—which of course includes the climactic ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”—but both producer Bagley as well as musical theater preservationist Mauceri put on disc the 1936 Robert Russell Bennett orchestration rather than the 1954 one by Don Walker. Our John, being John (I’m starting to get into his “ear”), chose the Walker score to play in the Royal Albert—which of course makes the most of those two “false” endings—and for once he was entirely correct.
When you’re awake
The things you think
Come from the dreams you dream
Thought has wings
And lots of things
Are seldom what they seem
Another love song to you, John Wilson my darling, my bonny, my Tyneside lad. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Warner Bros 1974), Scorsese’s fourth feature, my favorite actress in the world Ellen Burstyn plays Alice Hyatt, a New Mexico housewife suddenly widowed and left without means of support, who decides to try to return to her childhood home of Monterey, California and make a go of it again as a professional singer.
Weak and breathy as her voice is, she keeps the tune and the beat throughout the entire song—Scorsese has her sing the entire song, with intro—and something about the way Edna Rae (Burstyn’s original name) sings (imitating Peggy Lee above) appeals to me so much I come back to this scene again and again. Maybe it’s that her through-line is surprisingly strong. By the way, you do notice the sheet music for Oklahoma! on the piano…
I started collecting these Moments after getting right annoyed, not when I first heard my beloved Geordie lad John Wilson cheerfully dismissing Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics as being “needless”, not after the 2010 BBC Proms (an R+H tribute) or even the 2017 BBC Proms (Oklahoma! for God’s sake), but later on when I read about John in Brighton trying to conduct a sing-along with his concert audience in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the way Liverpool soccer club fans like to sing it when they’re winning—a song cue I HATE HATE HATE and would like to strangle the group responsible, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for.
The rule for bringing up a Rodgers & Hammerstein song in a Moment is simple: You sing it spontaneously—knowing the words and understanding and conveying its sentimental message—at the right moment. You have to read the moment, John. In the Jack Benny scene the humor is clear because everybody knows the words to “Getting to Know You” and everybody knows about Jack’s musical vanity vs his excessive courtliness toward pretty talented women; in the Cheers scene, Diane’s song cue is truly meant to comfort and inspire, and so makes for a genuine moment for characters and audience together; in 3rd Rock, well, “Oklahoma!” is just the ultimate rouser. You don’t even have to sing it well. (So a much better sing-along song actually.)
So it kind of heartens me, John, that you won’t be going back to mangling The Great American Songbook for awhile. Here’s hoping you take a long vacation in Bermuda, my Tyneside darling. Get a tan, get laid. And when you come back, commit yourself to the orchestral repertoire you do best.
I’m still finding it mighty strange that John was born on the same day as my father’s final birthday, in 1972—on the 25th of May, which would make them both Geminis—but somehow it starts to make sense: There’s John of the BBC and Eric Coates and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the tra-la-boomy-boom that makes up English music; and then there’s John of the big-shouldered swaggering sweating bombastic vibrant American tune book. One (when he plays it well) makes me want to cook him a nice lamb stew with pearl onions swimming in the rich gravy; the other (again, when he plays it well, which is almost always) makes me want to—well, I was in The Business, you know, use your imagination.
Low Fell Lad Makes Good. Above: the Arlen-Kohler standard “Get Happy” was written for Ruth Etting but popularized by Judy Garland in the film, Summer Stock (MGM, 1951).
Only don’t be too sure which is which. Like I said, John almost always plays the music of his own country and heritage well, with a deep feeling that’s irresistible; whereas when he works out the great American tunes it turns out more often to be hit-and-miss, with many many many more misses than hits.
But oh! When he does hit!
When bonny John and his orchestra play “Get Happy” or “The Trolley Song” or “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” or the MGM Jubilee Overture—or the absolute best of the lot, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue“—it’s total heaven, and I’m not the only one to say this. Subtlety is not this lad’s forte when it comes to the American popular repertoire. But when John goes big, bright, busy and loud when the number actually calls for it, screams out for it, it’s so damn satisfying when he does it and does it brilliantly that I want to—how can I put this?—do something for my darling in gratitude…make him a nice meal…fatten him up a little… (Ess, kind, ess!)
For right now, though, I’ll settle for a natter on a quiet afternoon with you John, rather not in London, maybe when you get up to Gateshead again, mi vida, back to The Angel of the North…
With 2 meals a day included it came out to $33 a week. You read that right. A place in Greenwich Village, breakfast and dinner, for thirty-three dollars a week. Try to imagine the mischief I got into with all the money I had left over from my weekly paycheck from my first job as a solfeggist at ASCAP, that it’s summer in NYC, it’s 1973, I’m eighteen, cute as a button and old enough to drink, and gorgeous men are everywhere. And imagine too that I’m singing a song (in my heart and sometimes aloud while bounding down the street) that every American girl of my generation inspired by Julie Andrews sang:
I have confidence in confidence alone Besides which you see I have con-fi-dence in meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
No Strings opened on Broadway in 1962 and ran for 580 performances. Rodgers got the idea for casting a black actress in the star role after seeing model-turned-actress Diahann Carroll on The Tonight Show, feeling that the casting spoke for itself and any specific references to race in the play were unnecessary. “Rather than shrinking from the issue of race,” said Rodgers, “such an approach would demonstrate our respect for the audience’s ability to accept our theme free from rhetoric or sermons.” The script was by Samuel A. Taylor, who wrote the play Sabrina Fair and adapted the book D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac for the Hitchcock film, Vertigo.
Considered too risky by Broadway investors, the first production was almost entirely financed by Rodgers himself. Following out-of-town engagements in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland and New Haven, No Strings finally opened at the 54th Street Theater on 15 March 1962. It was generally welcomed by the New York critics; at season’s end, it was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning three: for Joe Layton as choreographer, for Diahann Carroll as Best Actress in a Musical, and for Rodgers for his score.
Upon seeing the 2003 No Strings revival at Encores! The New York Times‘s Ben Brantley wrote: “The revelation of No Strings is that one of songwriting’s greatest collaborators had it in him to fly high on his own. And fly high he did. No Strings deserves to be better known than it is. The music is youthful and jazzy, almost a throwback to the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hart. The lyrics range, frankly, from serviceable to as good as they get. The relationship between the two leading characters at the heart of this musical is in the fine tradition of the attracting opposites found in all the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, and the emotional stakes are as real today as they were in 1962.”
As the title hints, there’s no string section in this pit. In fact there’s no pit: The musicians are all on stage, playing and occasionally making appearances in the story. The orchestrator Ralph Burns eventually did record an orchestration with strings for his own band, but I haven’t heard it.
The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear
Are still inside my head
The kindest words I’ll ever know
Are waiting to be said
Not my favorite version of all the R&H Cinderellas (this is my favorite version—I mean come on, it’s Julie Andrews) but this one boasts, as I mentioned, the gorgeous pinoy Paolo Montalban singing “The Sweetest Sounds” from No Strings as well as the Queen of Broadway, Bernadette Peters, singing great another interpolated Rodgers song, “Falling in Love with Love“. Nifty score arrangement by Doug Besterman.