Friday, January 11, 2013

Off Broadway: The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen

Antoinette Henry & 3 Crooners (L to R): Antoinette Henry, Joe Shepherd, Marcus Goldhaber, George Bugatti.  Photo by Pamela Hall.

If asked “Who were the greatest American composers of popular songs of the twentieth century?”, chances are that George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter would immediately come to mind.  But what of Harold Arlen?  Surprisingly, he is not nearly as well known – despite the fact that his Academy Award winning “Over the Rainbow” (composed for the motion picture “The Wizard of Oz”) was voted the Number 1 Song of the Twentieth Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and one of the “Songs of the Century” by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nor was “Over the Rainbow” some kind of fluke, a one shot success by an otherwise mediocre composer.  On the contrary, in the course of his long and successful career, Arlen composed more than 500 songs, many of which appear in “The Great American Songbook,” including “Blues in the Night,” “It‘s Only a Paper Moon,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “One for My Baby,” “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic,” “The Man That Got Away,” and many more.  (In 1933, “Billboard” actually proclaimed Shakespeare to be the most prolific playwright in history and Arlen the most prolific composer!)  And yet it is probably fair to state that, today, Harold Arlen is the single greatest little-known American composer of the twentieth century.

The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen, the musical revue that has just opened at St. Luke’s Theatre on West 46th Street in New York following a national tour to 18 cities and a month-long run in Las Vegas, sets out to redress that shortcoming and to a great extent it succeeds.  The very talented Three Crooners (George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber, and Joe Shepherd) together with the dynamic Antoinette Henry deliver their renditions of more than two dozen of Arlen’s most popular compositions with great verve and pizazz.  In addition to the eight Arlen classics mentioned above, they belt out “Get Happy,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and many, many more of Arlen’s classics including a medley of songs (in addition to “Over the Rainbow”) from “The Wizard of Oz.”  It’s doubtful if you’ll hear any songs you haven’t heard before many times over but you may come away from the revue surprised to realize that were all composed by  - what’s his name again? – oh, yes, Harold Arlen.

As a musical revue, the show is certainly worth seeing.  All three of the “Crooners” have distinctive, strong voices and deserve considerable praise for their performances (my personal favorite was the mellow Joe Shepherd).  And Antoinette Henry is simply terrific, channeling some of the last century’s top female entertainers including Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters.  But as a show based on the life of Harold Arlen, it falls very short.

Harold Arlen was a complex individual whose successful musical career and ultimately tragic personal life provided ample material for a musical of greater depth.  Born in Buffalo, NY in 1905 as Hyman Arluck, the son of a Jewish cantor, Arlen’s music was influenced not only by Jewish liturgical tradition but also by his early exposure to African-American jazz (in the early 1930s, Arlen wrote music for Harlem’s famed Cotton Club).  Against his parents’ wishes, he left home at age 16 and, years later, he married Anya Taranda, a beautiful Catholic model, also against his family’s wishes.

Arlen remained in love with Anya until her death in 1970 (despite her institutionalization for seven years in a sanitarium in 1951).  His father died in 1953 and his mother three years later, at which time Arlen withdrew from music for a year, mourning her loss.  He returned to his music in the 1960s but subsequent to Anya’s death, became increasingly reclusive.  Suffering from depression and Parkinson’s Disease, Arlen died of cancer in 1986.  This is the raw material from which a truly successful play – more than a simple musical revue – might have been written and bits of it are alluded to in passing in The Wonderful Wizard of Song.  Most of it, however, is simply ignored and none of it is truly developed.

So the bottom line is this: The Wonderful Wizard of Song is a good musical revue with wonderful performances of more than two dozen of Harold Arlen’s greatest hits by four outstanding singers.  Arlen is given the credit he deserves for these musical compositions and if it’s just his music you’re interested in, you won’t be disappointed.  But if you were hoping for something more – some insight into Arlen, the man himself, not just Arlen, the composer – sad to say, you won’t find it here..

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