Why isn’t Harold Arlen as well-known as George Gershwin?
It is a question that provokes debate among connoisseurs of what has become known as the Great American Songbook, or the Golden Age of Musical Theater.
Wall Street Journal drama critic and “recovering musician” Terry Teachout: Because his tunes are more complicated.
Playwright David J. Loehr: Dying young didn’t hurt Gershwin’s reputation. Not being snarky, just observing. He fits the genius-dies-tragically-young story.
Arts administrator and producer Howard Sherman: Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue lifted Gershwin into the realm of “artist” in popular perception. Hailed in his own time and it stuck.
Theater editor and composer Rob Weinert-Kendt: Gershwin’s Broadway hits and concert career made him a household name.
Notice that these are largely explanations for Gershwin’s fame rather than Arlen’s relative obscurity.
Arlen wrote the music for the Wizard of Oz, including “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” voted by various august bodies as the greatest song of the twentieth century. He composed the music for some two dozen Broadway musicals including “St. Louis Woman,” “Jamaica” and “Saratoga,” and for more than 30 movie musicals; his music is featured in an almost uncountable number of films and TV shows over the past eight decades . All in all, he wrote some 500 songs of great variety and mood, from “Accentuate the Positive” to “Blues in the Night,” from “Get Happy” to “Stormy Weather.”
There is a story Arlen told of hearing a cabdriver whistling “Stormy Weather” and asking him coyly who wrote it. Irving Berlin? Richard Rodgers? Cole Porter?
“I wrote the song,” Arlen finally said.
“Who are you?”
In some ways Arlen’s lack of renown is a blessing, since among the avalanche of shows using Gershwin’s songs there are just as many steeped in smiley mediocrity as deeply-felt homage.
This brings us to “The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen,” which has opened at St. Luke’s Theater starring a group called The Three Crooners. The hour-long show is not as bad as its title. It features many of Arlen’s standards, accompanied by a three-piece band and sung by the crooners, made up of George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber and Joe Shepherd, with Antoinette Henry. Henry’s performance, especially on the bluesy numbers, was the best thing about the show; another highlight was the bass playing by Saadi Zain. It was also fun to hear the anecdotes parceled in-between the songs – how Arlen was born Hyman Arluck, the son of a Buffalo cantor, who rented out an apartment in their house to an African-American family; how he played piano at the Cotton Club, and composed the song “Stormy Weather” for Ethel Waters after talking to her for 30 minutes.
Less appreciated are the constant bland costume changes, the routine choreography (a challenge given the small stage at the St. Luke’s Theater), the literal-minded projections and a lame re-enactment of the moment that Arlen and collaborator Johnny Mercer came up with the song “Come Rain Or Come Shine.”
There is nothing from “The Wizard of Oz” until the end, when there is a medley from the movie, concluding with “Over The Rainbow” This to my taste was a mistake — almost as much of a mistake as when The Three Crooners earlier took turns singing verses from “One For My Baby,” which is the quintessential song of loneliness. (I’ll admit that it is unlikely any singer would match for me Frank Sinatra’s interpretation of this song on “Only The Lonely,” one of the two best albums he ever did.)
The Three Crooners might have learned a lesson from Lena Horne, who sang Stormy Weather in a puzzlingly low-key manner near the beginning of her once-in-a-lifetime solo show on Broadway, and then sang it again, putting her all into it, near the end – but not at the end –explaining that she had to live a little before she really understood that song.
St. Luke’s Theater
308 West 46th Street
Written by George Bugati
Original Concept By Sam Arlen, George Bugatti and Nigel Wright
Direction and Musical Staging by Gene Castle
Arrangements by Steve Rawlins, Arty Schroeck and Chris Hoffman
Set and lighting design by Josh Iacovelli, costume design by Amy Pedigo-Otto, sound design by Marc Heller
Cast: The Three Crooners — George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber, Joe Shepherd — and Antoinette Henry
Running time: Officially it’s 80 minutes, but the night I saw it, it ran about 65 minutes.
Tickets: $69.50 and $39.50
Songs in The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen
World On A String
Learn to Croon
Accentuate The Positive
Let’s Fall in Love
Down with Love/Hooray for Love Medley
This Time The Dream’s on Me
Blues in the Night
Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home
Come Rain or Come Shine
Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day
That Old Black Magic
One For My Baby
I’ve Got The Right To Sing The Blues
The Gal That Got Away
Ding Dong the Witch is Dead
In the Merry Old Land of Oz
If I Only Had A Brain
Off to See The Wizard
Over The Rainbow