Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bloomer Girl

I need to talk about my Dad. It comes up periodically. He loomed larger than life and his spirit still does. But in order to get to there, we have to start somewhere else--up the Great White Way and the stagelights of Broadway.

OK, now, I'm not one for musicals, generally. But it's not because the form itself is bad. In theory, a staged story with songs built in seems like a great idea and, approached with real creativity, it could be a powerful medium. But instead, musicals generally follow a tradition rooted in vaudeville that has little or nothing to do with either a good story or good songs. At the same time, they tend to cowtow to our basest artistic instincts by mimicking the monumentality and mythos of opera like a beggar at ... well, an opera. By aiming at the masses the medium misses the opportunity for meaning. But Broadway isn't about meaning; its about money. And so, musicals, on the whole, are a waste and I avoid them.

As with pop songs, however, smashed within the tight little fist of Broadway producers you can occasionally find a real diamond, formed and harbored there as if by accident.

And that brings me to my Dad. He was a disciplined ex-Navy pilot and an executive of a small steel corporation. He read books. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Usually novels from once-recitable Western canon but also history, poetry and philosophy. His taste for culture emphasized the nobility of the common man--the works of Lincoln, Shakespeare, Hemingway, the poetry of Robert Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Vladimir Horowitz (guileless, pure talent) playing the music of Beethoven (self-made genius-overcomes-debilitating-hardship) was to be found on the stereo console's tall spindle piled atop LPs of the torch songs of Edith Piaf and "West Side Story" of Leonard Bernstein. The thread that bound them was the nobility of mundane experience, the idealization of simple humanity, the elevation of the our day-to-day stories and concerns onto a white marble throne. Dad was the American Dream incarnate and he knew it and celebrated it, toasting it with Manhattans by the fireplace with a good book.

After he died, I slowly began exploring some of the musicals that he subjected us to when we were kids. "Oklahoma", "Camelot" and "Gypsy" were certainly among them, but you can find as many detractors for those as you can admirers. The others were more significant: in addition to "West Side Story" there was Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady", Wasserman/Darion/Leigh's "Man of La Mancha," Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man," Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess" and Stein/Harnick/Bock's "Fiddler on the Roof." Inarguably classics of the genre.

I've gained new respect for my Dad's taste in music as a result of this Broadway inquiry. Just last year, as a gift to my siblings, I went hunting for a couple songs he used to sing: "Free as the Sun is Free" and "I Got a Railrood Song." I had no idea where they came from, but I knew most of the words. We could not take a family car ride anywhere before, within a mile or so, he would come busting out with one or the other. If my father were a sitcom, these were his theme songs.

Turns out, they are both from the same musical, a largely forgotten flower of a work called "Bloomer Girl" with music by Harold Arlen, that was first staged in 1944. A revival was mounted in 2001 and got a tepid, if not sour review from the New York Times, a dissatisfaction that had more to do with the direction than the writing, I think. The original 1944 review, available in the NYTimes online archives, was much more favorable.

Set at the start of the Civil War, the story is a totally contrived blend of romance with commentary on both feminism and race issues. The political positions weren't exactly radical, but they were political positions and that in itself was a little radical for 1944. The authors never lose sight of the charm factor, an almost obsequious pandering to their audience. But still, they manage some great moments, including the women's rousing anthem "It Was Good Enough for Grandma" and a moving little auction block chant, "Man for Sale". And, of course, "Free as the Sun is Free" a song that, for better or worse, will haunt me to my dying day.

You can't find "Bloomer Girl" on iTunes. But, you can get it for $4.99 on CD at Amazon. A bargain. As you listen, just think of my Dad, comfortable in his armchair on the sidelines of the Cold War. My Dad would quote over and over a line from a speech by Faulkner (who, by the way, was referencing himself--and that's not nobility, that's hutzpah): "Man will not only endure; he will prevail."

Will we prevail because of musicals like "Bloomer Girl"? Probably not. But here's what my Dad would say: take enough simple acts by individuals like the composers and actors of that musical--add them all up and the result might just be something heroic.


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