Thursday, February 21, 2008


A beautiful but bored housewife in a Mediterranean port city (let’s say Barcelona) charms an Army captain who is en route to a campaign in a North African city (let’s say Tangiers) and impulsively takes off with him, and the two live together in his villa in North Africa. But duty calls, and he must leave her to join his regiment. She begs him to stay, but he marches off, more than a little worried that the men of North Africa may be drawn to her like ants to a picnic.

His worries are well founded, for soon she is a successful exotic dancer in a nightclub, where her charms are irresistible to the club’s well heeled patrons. The captain finally deserts his regiment and tracks her down, but it is too late: She has found a life that agrees with her.

Years later, the broken-hearted captain is reduced to working as a cocktail pianist in a luxury hotel. His old flame is ushered to a table to await her escort for the evening, a wealthy duke. The captain plays a few bars of “their” old song (no, it’s not “As Time Goes By’), and she recognizes him and tries to restart the old romance. Alas, this time it’s too late for him, for he’s a broken man. The girl leaves with the duke.

That, more or less, is the plot of Franz Lehar’s last major operetta, Giuditta. premiered at the Vienna State Opera in 1934, about 30 years after Lehar wrote what is probably the most successful operetta of all time, The Merry Widow. The Vienna premiere of Giuditta (Lehar’s favorite of all his works) was broadcast worldwide by no fewer than 120 radio stations, but for all that, it was not well received by the locals, and to this day it has never been seen in New York, London, or Paris.

Has your curiosity been piqued? Good, because I am here to tell you that a fine CD recording exists, in English, courtesy of Telarc. It stars Jerry Hadley, familiar to all PBS fans, as Octavio, the captain, and Deborah Riedel in the title role. A full-bodied English Chamber Orchestra backs them up, and the excellent program booklet includes the entire libretto. You may recognize a couple of the songs: “Love, Gentle and Tender” and “Kiss My Lips and Your Heart’s Aflame” (both woeful translations of the original German). The CD was recorded in London in 1996, and it is technically very good. Hadley, a superb tenor, is in good voice. Riedel is a capable soprano, if a bit shrill at times. The secondary couple (there’s always a secondary couple in these things) are Naomi Itami and Lynton Atkinson, both solid performers.

So now there’s one more way to escape the Hillary-Obama-McCain drumbeat that is the curse of television these nights.

If you like operetta, check out this summer’s program at the Ohio Light Opera, in Wooster. In addition to standards like The Mikado and The Desert Song, the OLO will stage rarely hear operettas like The Czarevitch, L’etoile, and Marinka. The season is laid out for you at

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fed Up

For well over a year now, you’ve been listening to speeches by Hillary, speeches by Barak, speeches by John and Mitt and Rudy and the other presidential hopefuls. You have also heard political analyses and commentaries by Katie, Wolf, Sean, Anderson, Glen, David, James, and the other talking heads. After each primary, you have been told how every describable demographic group voted: white males 45 and over, black females 18-40, Latino factory workers, young immigrants, black white collar workers, etc. You are told what Hillary said about Barak last night, how Barak reacted to that, and how Hillary reacted to Baraks’ reaction. Whatever news channel you choose, you can’t escape; it is as if there is no other news.

Had enough? Then here’s what you do: Go to the window of your house or apartment, throw it open, and shout to the world, “I’m fed up, and I’m not going to take it any more!”

This is not a tirade against political discourse, which, after all, lies at the core of our democratic system. But it is an indictment of chatter so inane, so repetitive, and so insulting to our intelligence as to drive us all to tune out.

Unless you have been living in a lead mine for the past year, you now know the leading candidates’ positions on taxes, health care, Iraq, the deficit, global trade, and global warming. What is left to know? Ah, there is always more, as long as TV channels compete for ratings. There is the issue of Barak’s wife, a putative loose cannon. There is the issue of Bill “ First Man” Clinton, prowling around the White House in search of interns. There is the issue of whether John McCain is already planning his invasion of Iran. They are all reasonable subjects for discussion, but don’t expect any answers from CNN or CBS or Fox, only questions.

You may or may not want to go the window and pull a Peter Finch, but you could decide to switch the channel whenever the subject of the 2008 presidential election comes up. Go to the Food Channel, or Turner Classic Movies, or the History Channel. The Weather Channel is running a great series called “When Weather Changed History.” There are other channels where you’ll be safe from talk about Barak and Hillary and John.

The ultimate rebellion, of course, is to withhold one’s vote for either presidential candidate. This sounds like an extreme, even unpatriotic position, but it is the correct position for anyone who cannot in conscience support either major presidential candidate. “None of the above” will probably appeal to more than a few voters this November.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Defense Secretary Gates thinks the Iraq surge is working but is not sure about a troop draw-down. The NATO alliance is falling apart in Afghanistan. Iran has test-flown a ballistic rocket with an estimated range of 2000 miles. Hugo Chavez threatens to cut off oil shipments to the U.S. A rebel group has seized control of much of Chad. Riots have broken out in Kenya. The Darfur human rights disaster continues. North Korea’s agreement to suspend its nuclear program is on hold. Thousands of Burmese are fleeing into Thailand. In the U.S., a bitterly divisive presidential election seems unavoidable.

And what do you suppose our Congressional representatives are preoccupied with today?
What Capitol Hill hearings fill our television screens this morning? What important topic has brought the entire news-gathering community and their cameras to the hearings chamber?

War? Taxes? The recession? None of the above. Our elected representatives are holding forth on issue of whether a baseball pitcher named Roger Clemens ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

One after another, these stalwarts do their best to project a sense of gravity during hearings that serve no discernible purpose other than to allow them to project a sense of gravity. Do these people really think the state of the nation hinges on whether Roger Clemens used HGH? Representative John Tierney is today’s poster boy for this kind of nonsense, possibly because Tierney (D-MA) senses that there are some votes to be had in grilling a member of the Yankees. Tierney is now outraged, now righteous; see his face redden as he pursues his quarry. What a hambone!

It would be refreshing to hear Senator Clinton or Obama or McCain promise to restore a sense of priorities in Washington and stop these circuses, but it won’t happen. They know that most people would rather watch a Congressional version of American Idol than a serious discussion of world affairs. It is our priorities that are screwed up, not Congress’s.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Songs of War

In World War 1, the doughboys marched off to war singing “Over There,” and when they went into battle, they sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The British and the French, not to be outdone, had their own lists of songs designed to keep spirits high.

In World War 2, the composers pulled out all the stops. Irving Berlin dug “God Bless America” out of his trunk and, with Kate Smith’s help, made it a second national anthem. Frank Loesser contributed “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn wrote “I’ll Walk Alone.” From Old Blighty we heard Vera Lynn and others promise that “We’ll Meet Again” and “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.” The Andrews Sisters sang about the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” and a uniformed Irving Berlin was on stage singing how he hated to get up in the morning. There were dozens if not hundreds of songs about soldiers, sailors, marines, and the girls back home, some of them, like Rosie, working away as riveters. The musical legacy of World War 2 lives on, as many of the tunes became standards that are now ingrained in the national psyche.

Then things changed. Nobody sang sentimental ballads about the Korean War or about Vietnam. (The musical “Miss Saigon” has many fine tunes, but they are mostly bitter or satirical.) We are now engaged in war once again, but nobody’s writing songs about it. (“It’s a Long Way to Sadr City”? I don’t think so.) As a society, we have progressed to the point where no one writes pop tunes romanticizing war. We are endlessly exhorted to “support our troops” by backing the latest tactical surge, but even that line is getting tired, and no one is setting it to music.

Of course, hardly anyone is writing romantic ballads of any kind these days, and we are all the poorer for that. A song like “I’ll Walk Alone” was really a love song, not a war song, and that is why it is still sung. Most of the true war songs didn’t last. They sold War Bonds and made people feel patriotic, but now they are rightly forgotten.

Oh, by the way, the U.S. and its allies didn’t hold a monopoly on war songs in WW2. I have a book of Soviet popular songs of that era, and, in case you’re curious, here are the lyrics for one of them, “Tachanka,” translated into English:

Fly, oh bird, above the highway,
Beast aside, to the clear road.
Look and see the dust roll skyward,
Raised by horses swiftly rode.
Taking aim with his machine gun,
The young gunner opens fire.
And staccato shots unseen zip,
Making all the foes retire.
Eh, Tachanka rostovchanka,
You’re a beauty and our pride.
With the mounted troops Tachanka,
On four wheels you swiftly ride.

Well, it probably loses something in translation.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Frank Loesser

Today’s Wall Street Journal brought a long review of a new book about Frank Loesser, and, since my antennae always home in on articles about the great songwriters, I dove into the story expecting enrichment. Instead, I was left wondering how a reviewer, presumably knowledgeable about the subject, could spend 1000 words or so on the musical achievements of Frank Loesser – a giant among American composers – without once mentioning the Loesser masterpiece, The Most Happy Fella. Instead, what we got was a lot of gushing about Loesser’s pop tunes, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “A Slow Boat to China” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s?” Good songs all, but they are mere footnotes in the illustrious biography of Frank Loesser.

To those in the know, Loesser gave Broadway two masterpieces: Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella, and if he never wrote another musical or another song, that would qualify him for the Pantheon. Yes, How to Succeed…”won a Pulitzer, but its score is second rate. He also wrote Where’s Charley? and Greenwillow, but most of his 700 or so songs were written as singles, many of them becoming standards.

But let’s return to the two masterpieces. Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella are so different that it is hard believe they are the works of the same composer. The opening of Guys and Dolls marks the show as an instant classic. Three “guys” sing about their favorite horses in today’s race. Nicely-Nicely likes Paul Revere, Benny is betting on Valentine, and Epitaph is Rusty Charlie’s choice. The “Fugue for Tinhorns” develops into a contrapuntal trio that sets the tone for the show. In the title song, we learn that “when you see a gent paying all kinds of rent for a flat that would flatten the Taj Mahal, call it sad, call it funny, but it's better then even money that the guy's only doing it for some doll.” Can lyrics get any better than that?

The Most Happy Fella is operatic, with Loesser pouring out one beautiful melody after another – enough for three musicals, really. The story, based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted, centers on Tony, a middle-aged, Italian wine grower from the Napa Valley who falls in love with a San Francisco waitress, courts her by mail, and, when it comes time to swap pictures, sends her a photograph of his handsome foreman, Joe. When she travels to Napa and discovers the deception, she is enraged at Tony, seeks solace in Joe’s arms, and becomes pregnant. But when kind-hearted Tony is injured in an accident, she decides to stay on and take care of him. She falls in love with Tony, Joe packs up and leaves, singing that he’s had “all I want of the ladies in the neighborhood.” Tony is more than happy at the prospect of serving as the father of Rosabella’s baby.

It is a rich, warm love story, whose Napa Valley setting seems to cry out for a Puccini score. And we get it, with no compromise, from Frank Loesser, complete with festival songs (“Abbondanza”, “Sposalizio”) and dramatic arias (“My Heart is So Full of You,” “A Long Time Ago”). But for all its operatic soul, at heart this is a Broadway musical as well, so Loesser gives us “Big D” and “Standing on the Corner.”

I saw the Broadway original production in 1956, buying standing room at the sold-out Imperial. And I would do it again, even with my creaky knee. Tony was played by Robert Weede, Rosabella by Jo Sullivan (later Mrs. Frank Loesser). That amazing production was captured – not just the songs, but the whole play – in a three-LP recording, which is one of my most prized possessions. You don’t have a turntable? Not to worry: Sony has issued the entire original-cast album on a two-CD set. This is musical theater the likes of which you just don’t find anymore, because they aren’t making Frank Loessers anymore.