For John Wilson, Conductor: Marlene Dietrich Sings “Happy Birthday, Johnny” from The Song of Songs, Directed by My Old Boss, Rouben Mamoulian (1933)

25 May, 2019. This afternoon someone in Glyndebourne will be cutting my beloved John Wilson’s cake into tiny little slices, and so I wish them all well at the gathering.

The Song of Songs
La Dietrich inspires a handsome young English orchestra conductor to artistic heights with her transfiguring and deeply sexual love in this erotically frank pre-Code movie from Paramount.

If only you understood dirty German, my bonny…

PS—A special shout-out to my old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, who once told me, “Love with style, but also with a little sadness for the suffering involved.”

 

“Ask Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse If Their Mailbox is All Right”

Silk Stockings.jpg
Fred Astaire was 58 when he made this movie. Mamoulian was 60. Cyd Charisse was ageless.

“Red Blues,” choreographed by Balanchine-trained Eugene Loring (who also choreographed the ballet Billy the Kid, with music by Aaron Copland) from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1957. Mamoulian hadn’t directed a picture since 1946; after the Cleopatra debacle in the early 1960s, Silk Stockings turned out to be his last completed work in Hollywood.

In winter 1979, Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin (“Temptation“) lived in a house up the hill from The Old Man on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills in tranquil retirement. However, at the top of the hill also lived the Shah of Iran’s 86 year-old mother, and came the revolution Iranian students from all over the Southland marched up Schuyler Road to demonstrate outside her house, indulging in a little vandalism on the way. Mamoulian was, of course, furious, and his lovely wife Zayde, who never left her bedroom, buzzed me on the intercom to fume over the “criminals” (her word) who toppled their sovereign letter receptacle. The Old Man’s second concern—after his own mailbox, of course—was the mailbox of his good friend and former leading lady, and I was dispatched to phone them at once. Happily, the protesters had missed theirs.

John Wilson Conducts Oklahoma at the 2017 BBC Proms, Rouben Mamoulian Howls In Protest from His Grave, Part 1

…and this time I’m siding with The Old Man. But I’m writing this for you, John.

Richard Rodgers Piano

Let me start off with a little story. It’s a true story, and it’s one of the reasons I’m here doing this thing right now.

(I mean, the rest of you didn’t really think this entire blog was just about bonny John Wilson, did you?)

But bear with me a moment. I have to go back in my memory to forty, forty-one years ago, to that sad shabby house up on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills which I’m not really rarin’ to do, but here goes.

It was a late morning about six weeks into my work assignment and The Old Man hadn’t arisen yet, so there I was in the salon with nothing to do except quietly wait for his appearance and his orders for the day (which letters to answer, which bills to pay, which people to call, etc) before getting down to the primary purpose of my being there, which was, in the agency’s words, “to assist Mr Mamoulian in the writing of his memoirs”. None of that memoir writing actually did transpire in the nearly nine months I was with him—other things did—but let’s not jump ahead. Unsupervised, I was forbidden to handle/read books from his voluminous library, but you know what? He never expressly told me not to play the piano, that big black shiny intriguing baby grand in the middle of the room, and I couldn’t resist. Could you?

There wasn’t a sound coming from any part of the house, although I could faintly hear Henry the daily handyman moving his wheelbarrow out in the yard. I’d had enough of examining in painstaking detail the boring watercolors and Russian icons on the wall. I sat down on the bench.

Sense memory kicking in… At that point it was the closest I had gotten to this humongous piece of furniture. I remember the smooth feel of the wood as I ran my fingers on it, gently lifting up the fall board to get to the keys. The piano was a Steinway. That is, I remember it as a Steinway, because I don’t remember it not being a Steinway. I put the fingers of my right hand down in place and began, ever so softly, to tap out the first tune that came into my mind, which happened to be the waltz from Carousel. Three, four bars in I thought I heard a rustle from the back of the house and stopped cold, put the fall board down and stood up.

This was the first time my eye was caught by something on the right side of the music rack, some sort of writing actually carved into the wood of the music shelf that lay flat in the cabinet of the piano. It was in cursive—and it was a name:

Richard Rodgers

It still gives me goosebumps to remember (like remembering what it was like to handle a saint’s bones): sitting on the same bench Richard Rodgers sat on, putting my fingers on the same keys… When The Old Man finally did get up an hour later, I was sitting back at my desk in his alcove-cum-office, pretending to read one of the cheap Hollywood magazines I brought to pass the time, although my mind was still on the bars I’d played and where the bars were going musically, and I think I was humming. I must’ve been humming. Because as he came into the alcove I heard Mamoulian exclaim, “Hey, that’s from Carousel.

I looked up. Caught! I was about to apologize when he spoke again, this time it seemed almost wistfully. “You know, I directed that.”

I said softly, as if it were an apology, “I know.”

At that moment our relationship started to take a different turn.

Part 2 to come.

Porgy and Bess at the English National Opera, Conducted by John Wilson, Fall 2018

In a podcast interview for the English National Opera, this is what my bonny John Wilson, Conductor had to say:

“There are very few pieces I can say I’ve been waiting all my life to conduct, and this is one of them. In my, kind of, college years or whenever that was, I got the Simon Rattle LP and I kind of wore out the groove of those records and had to buy ‘em on CD…

“Of course it’s known for the hit tunes that have been extracted from it, but it’s much more than that… And I would even say that the most interesting music in the opera is the ariosos, the small pieces which link everything together and the incidental music… It’s really very ambitious… It’s George Gershwin at his most inventive, and as Gershwin was arguably the greatest tunesmith of the twentieth century, you’re looking at melodic material from the very very top drawer…”

ENO Porgy and Bess

Tunesmith—sheesh.

And I miss the goat. Without the goat, there is no Porgy and Bess (2:31:25).

Thanks to LA producer/theatre & film critic Myron Meisel for his comments—on Gershwin and original director (1935) Rouben Mamoulian—on Facebook, which I answered there.

 

Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin and the Cast of Porgy and Bess

…being wildly applauded in this photo of opening night. Lest we forget, it was The Old Man who directed the very first production of P&B. (Oh, he never let me forget it.) That’s him behind Gershwin in the goggle glasses.

Porgy and Bess Mamoulian
Of Porgy and Bess’s premiere, composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote: “Gershwin’s lack of understanding of all the major problems of form, of continuity, and of serious or direct expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of his musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles… I do not like fake folklore, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor gefilte-fish orchestration.” The 1934 production ran for 124 performances–for opera, a huge success, but by Broadway standards, a flop.

John Wilson, Conductor and the Hollywood Thing

john wilson no macfarlane

Well John, it actually would hurt me if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you (which is something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching Family Guy anyway). I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. Not exactly an asset in this town.

“Stereophonic Sound”
Silk Stockings, MGM 1957
Janis Paige, Fred Astaire
Rouben Mamoulian, Director

Silk Stockings was the last movie The Old Man ever did (at 60—he died at 90), and “Stereophonic Sound” is one of the numbers on my bonny John Wilson’s 2014 Cole Porter album. But watch the clip instead. Janis Paige is the focus in this number but Fred Astaire at 58 is still a joy.

Mamoulian, The Drunken Woman in the Other Room, and Laura by David Raksin Conducted by John Wilson

This is what I mean when I say that John Wilson, Conductor has invaded every nook and cranny of my inner life. I hadn’t thought of Mamoulian in years until I recently came upon an excerpt of a concert conducted by John in Glasgow, September 2011. The program was Music to be Murdered By with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. (The BBC yanked that clip from YouTube, but here’s the exact same arrangement in a better recording with The New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself and produced by Charles Gerhardt.)

azadia newman laura
Azadia Newman next to her painting of Joan Crawford for The Last of Mrs Cheney (1937). Azadia’s famous portrait of Laura (that is to say, her portrait of Gene Tierney portraying the character, Laura) hung in the Mamoulians’ bedroom.

“You know I directed Laura,” said Mr Mamoulian to me matter-of-factly one day as we sat in his alcove-cum-study.

Now, I had seen the movie Laura several times—on TV and in the art house—and I remembered practically all the credits, which included one for Otto Preminger, Director…but no Mamoulian. But here was The Old Man sitting knee to knee with me, announcing right out that he was (what’s the Variety word?) the helmer of that glamorous but nutsy picture with Gene Tierney.

So what did I do? I was twenty-three. I was on a job. I nodded.

He sat back, took a couple of puffs from that awful cigar of his and smiled wistfully. “You know, Gene introduced me to my wife.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” I said. That would be Azadia, who Mamoulian called Zayde (a giggle, as zayde means grandfather in Yiddish); she was a woman I never saw except once. She was always in the Other Room.

[more later]