No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Lee Stern

Instead of going to my senior prom, I took my high school girlfriend by train from New Rochelle, only ‘forty-five minutes from Broadway’ to dinner at Sardi’s and for a performance of A Little Night Music. (I ‘came out’ within two years, it took Gail a little longer). A year later, I saw the first incarnation of Side by Side by Sondheim in London; by then I was a confirmed Sondheimite.




 |  Lee Stern

‘As you are dreaming time flies’. One moment you are a kid watching Rosemary Clooney on a black and white TV singing ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister/and God help the sister who comes between me and my man’ (Irving Berlin from White Christmas). Years later you are lucky enough to be able to sit at the top of Rockefeller Center with the snow falling over New York skyscrapers. Rosie is ten feet away from you achingly singing a heart-wrenching Jimmy Webb ballad (he had come a long way from ‘Up Up and Away’). And then you find this video clip of the California babe who had pounded out ‘You’re no good, you’re no good’. She too has mellowed and deepened, two goddesses in duet. It was in fact Linda Ronstadt who first brought the song forward, and brought Clooney aboard.




 |  Lee Stern

If you read yesterday’s entry, you won’t find it surprising that the dream that brought me to New York’s upper west side in 1978 was to write lyrics for musical theatre. I did this off and on, in obscurity, for many years. In various different workshops (ugh, that word!) I was praised by Betty Comden (bless her), critiqued by Charles Strouse (composer of Annie and Bye Bye Birdie), and excoriated by book writer Peter Stone (bless him). I did have my three minutes of unadulterated bliss when a pre-Tony Award winning Victoria Clark sang lyrics of mine as I sat in awe…but eventually I was ‘too old to be a young talent’, as a John Guare character once lamented.




 |  Lee Stern

I grew up surrounded by song, most prominently at the feet–or the fingers– of my grandmother, who lived next door. ‘Grandmere’ grew up in early twentieth century Jewish Harlem, and her youthful and lifelong joy was the musical theatre. Every family gathering included singing around the piano as she played from her boxes of sheet music dating from 1910 on. (There were ten songs from South Pacific alone). So, as I embark on this week-long project, which, of the hundreds of songs I love, do I begin with?




 |  Steven Blier

My Wolf Trap concert ends with a bang: Gershwin’s “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” done in its original arrangement—a bracing two-step. The song comes from “Of Thee I Sing,” the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. But the award was given only to the book-and-lyrics team of Morrie Ryskind, George. S. Kaufman, and Ira Gershwin, not to the composer, George Gershwin. At that time, the Pulitzer was still strictly a literary prize—no musicians allowed.




 |  Steven Blier

Since my upcoming Wolf Trap concert features four singers and two pianists, it seemed crazy not to open the program with the cornerstone work for those forces: Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. Normally I shun the obvious, so I briefly considered delving into the four-part writing of Szymanowski or Schoeck or Schreker. After about 40 seconds I came to my senses. Some pieces are evergreen, and the Liebeslieder are at the top of that last.




 |  Steven Blier

The Wolf Trap concert I’m about to start rehearsing is another one of my quattro stagione pizzas: four groups of songs from four countries, each nationality introduced by a two-piano piece for Joseph Li and me to play. Joe had asked me to include some French music, and I obliged. I’m putty in his hands—and he’ll also be playing most of the songs.




 |  Steven Blier

I am taking a small liberty and posting a “song” that doesn’t include any singing. But I have been so turned on by playing Astor Pizzolla’s “Fuga y misterio” on two pianos (with Joseph Li, of course) that I thought you might enjoy the excitement of the piece too. Something unusual happens to me when I play “Fuga y misterio”: I feel I become a different person. Music almost always flies me to a different emotional realm, but the physical act of pounding out Piazzolla’s tango brings out a Steve I have never before met before. 




 |  Steven Blier

One of the songs we’re doing at Wolf Trap is Gershwin’s “Hi-ho.” George and Ira wrote it for the movie “Shall We Dance,” and it finds the brothers at the top of their game. Musically complex (an early listener called it “practically a piano sonata”) and lyrically adroit, “Hi-ho” is a true Gershwin masterpiece. But it was simply too long to be included in the movie. It would have needed an expensive, elaborate set, and Hollywood was not seduced by its sheer musical brilliance. Tony Bennett recorded it as a sexy soft-shoe, but William Sharp and I exploited its careening energy when we made our Gershwin CD in 1990. I love Tony B., but I think our “Hi-ho” flies higher. And when Joe and I played it last weekend, my piano started to give off smoke. Watch out, world.




 |  Justine Aronson

In 1925, Kentucky explorer and caver Floyd Collins lost his footing at the end of an expedition. His left leg pinned underneath a 16-pound rock, Collins was trapped in a narrow tunnel, unable to move, and after 17 days (13 of which were without food or water) he left this earthly realm.

Composer and lyricist Adam Guettel imagines Collins’ last moments, his ideations of what the next life might be like in “How Glory Goes,” the gut-wrenching final song in the 1996 musical Floyd Collins. Audra McDonald sings the tune in here in a version that I deeply treasure.