Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?

Dec. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?

From Show Boat to Sondheim is a long way down.

Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim
By Geoffrey Block
Oxford University Press; 410 pages; $35

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The subtitle of Geoffrey Block's new book tells you the whole story--Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim. For some of us, that's not progress. In 70 years, what was once the mighty Mississippi of American popular culture, an ol' man river that seemed set to jes' keep rollin' along forever, has shriveled away to one toxic little stream on a dry, barren mud flat. You can measure the difference between Show Boat and Sondheim in a thousand ways, but a Los Angeles Times column earlier this year is as good a way as any. Defending the cause of "Ebonics," Professor Ron Emmons of Los Angeles City College asserts, among other fancies, that "Black English is in Negro spirituals ('Dat Ole Man River,' 'Ah Got Shoes')."

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"Ol' Man River" is not a Negro spiritual. It's a show tune cooked up in 1927 by a couple of middle-class honkies who needed something for a spot in the first act. Yes, Oscar Hammerstein's lyric is full of "dat" and "dese" (obviously, he was self-taught at Ebonics), but funnily enough, when Paul Robeson sang the song in the London production of Show Boat in 1928, the biggest problem he had was wrapping his beautiful, impeccable vowels around the soi-disant dialect lyric. Ever since, most black singers have preferred to sing "That Ol' Man River." If I were a sweating stevedore on the levee out by Los Angeles City College, it would be sorely tempting to mock the professor:

Ol' man Emmons,
Dat ol' man Emmons,
He mus' know sumpin
'He don' check nothin'.

B ut, in a way, he has a point, albeit not the one he thinks he's making: Hammerstein's is an unobtrusive craft, an artless art. "Ol' Man River" was the song in which he first found his lyrical voice, compressing the suffering, resignation, and anger of an entire race into 24 taut lines and doing it so naturally that it's no wonder folks assume the song's a Negro spiritual. If it's any consolation to Emmons, Hammerstein's very last lyric,"Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music, is invariably assumed to be a real Austrian folk song--indeed, a few years back, the White House went further, playing it at a state banquet for the Austrian president, under the impression that it was the country's national anthem. The great strength of these songs, one of the reasons they seep into our collective consciousness, is that they barely seem written at all.

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Geoffrey Block, professor of music at the University of Puget Sound School of Music in Tacoma, Wash., is determined to change all that. Enchanted Evenings is less concerned with enchantment than with the painstaking artistic judgments that lead to it. So here he is getting stuck in to Show Boat:

In the thrice-repeated opening phrase of"Where's the Mate for Me?" the first shown in Example 2.5a ("Who cares if my boat goes up stream" and two statements of "I drift along with my fancy") Kern ingeniously varies the harmony of the final melodic note D (Example 2.5b and c). Its first appearance on the words "upstream" (the third measure) is paradoxically the lowest note of the phrase--after all, the point is that Ravenal does not care whether he is going upstream or downstream. Here Kern harmonizes the tonic or central key, D, with a conventional tonic D-major triad. In the third measure of the next statement (Example 2.5b), Kern sets the word "fancy" with a fancy (and deceptive) resolution to a minor triad on the sixth degree of the scale. On the final statement of this phrase (Example 2.5c), moments before Ravenal hears Magnolia's piano theme and Kern displays his fanciest chord, again on the word "fancy."

Ah, they don't write 'em like that anymore. There's only one problem with Block's approach: That's not how it happened. In 99 percent of his songs, Jerome Kern's music was written before the words, and he was notorious for declining to accommodate his lyricists--no extra notes so that an ingenious word might be made to fit, and certainly no concessions to literal meaning in his melody or harmony. He didn't "set" the word "fancy" at all, and that fanciest chord was there long before Hammerstein fixed the words to those notes. It's possible that Hammerstein, coming upon "the lowest note of the phrase," thought, "Hey, I'll write 'upstream' there. How's that for a paradox?" but I doubt it: That's not the way the ear hears music, and Hammerstein was too sensitive a lyricist to be so numbingly literal. Herbert Kretzmer, one of the lyricists of Les Misérables, put it to me this way: "It's a question of finding what Johnny Mercer called the sound of the music. You're trying to capture something as elusive as a sound, which suggests a word, from which eventually a complete lyric emerges."

Still, you can't blame Block for trying. He's coming at it from the conservatory end of things and, if you're used to opera, the union of words and music in American song must take your breath away. Operas have plots and lyrics. But the words have no relationship to the music. Or, to put it the other way round, the music takes no account of the words.

"La donna è mobile."The worst Tin Pan Alley hack wouldn't give so much weight to the definite article because he'd know it was the most insignificant word in the line. But Verdi? He couldn't give a hoot. Insofar as he gives the lyrics a thought, it's only to say, "Stand well back, boys. I'm flyin'!"

Good musicals are both specific and universal. But they're specific because the words fit the shape of the tune, not because the tune is a translation of the words--the method Block appears to favor. Here he is banging on with his upstream/downstream, high note/low note approach again:

[I]n "You're the Top" Porter does not capitalize on the text's potential for realism. Although the "I" always appears in the bottom throughout most of the song, the "you" blithely moves back and forth from top to bottom. The upward leaping orchestral figure anticipates the word, "top," but the sung line does not, and at the punchline, "But if Baby I'm the bottom, / You're the top," both Billy and Reno ("I'm" and "You're") share a melodic line at the top of their respective ranges.

P hew! That entire paragraph deserves a rousing chorus of "You're the Pits!"With his fixation on tops and bottoms, Block's beginning to sound like the gay personal ads in the Village Voice. Unlike Kern with his top paradoxically on his bottom, poor old Porter gets no credit for having his bottom paradoxically on his top. Block's so busy following the vocal score that he's not hearing the song. For nonmusicologists, that "upward leaping orchestral figure" he mentions is the bit that goes:

[Plink-plink!] You're the top!

[Plink-plinketty-plink-plink!] You're the Coliseum ...

Not only is "You're the Top" one of the few songs where the little orchestral fill-ins are an intrinsic part of the song but, more than that, the fill-ins actually are the song: The sung bits "paradoxically" are the fill-ins--little conversational lyric phrases that fall in the gaps between the plinketty-plinks. If you know that, good for you; if you don't, it doesn't matter. But how could you sit down and analyze the thing and fail to notice it? As to the bottoms winding up on top, as a self-contained composer/lyricist Porter knew enough to let a good strong lyric-thrust set itself. How could Block be so Block-headed as to think that "But if Baby I'm the bottom,/ You're the top" could possibly be improved by putting "I'm" and "bottom" on low notes? It's the (relative) musical monotony of the phrase that makes it so insistent, so driving, and such a brilliantly effective cap to the song. It's the punch line; it's the exclamation point. How sad that Block, for all his technical ability, can't hear that.

S o maybe we're better off with ol' man Emmons and the White House misattributing Hammerstein's work to dirt-poor cotton pickers and lonely goatherds than with Block's misguided praise. In great popular art, after all, you notice the art, not the artist. Which brings us to Block's final chapter: Stephen Sondheim. One reason "Ol' Man River" is a powerful, memorable lyric is that there's no rhyme until the eighth and 10th lines. Hammerstein rhymes when the song requires it--a lesson his pupil, Sondheim, has forgotten. In Into the Woods, the mother of Jack (as in the beanstalk) tells her son to sell the family cow because:

We've no time to sit and dither

While her withers wither with her.

We're back to the pre-Hammerstein era: you're distanced from the character because all you can hear is the voice of the author. Sondheim has given us plotless musicals (Company) and characterless musicals (Pacific Overtures) and pointillist musicals (Sunday in the Park With George) and musicals that go backward (Merrily We Roll Along), but for all the supposed range and depth and variety, what you mainly notice about these musicals is Sondheim. It's the triumph of the artist over the art: the man who knows more than anyone else about musicals except how to write one where you don't notice how much he knows; the one subject who repays Block's analytical approach if only because that seems his natural home. I think of "Good Thing Going," his wonderfully brooding ballad from Merrily, with its expert title resolution:

"We had a good thing going ...

Going ...

Gone."

And, with Sondheim, it is gone.

Mark Steyn writes about popular music for Slate and about film for theLondon Spectator.

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