Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Dance Party: She Needs A Hammer

Oh, Debbie, Debbie, Debbie...
As Molly Brown, Deb earned an Oscar nomination.
I became your admirer pretty late in your career, having somehow avoided seeing your big, breakout role in Singin' in the Rain.  I couldn't get into your Tammy phase, and had little respect for the title song from that series of films, which topped the charts for you in 1957. 

I did enjoy your brassy performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, though I found (and still find) the movie to be a bit bloated. 

A recurring performance as Grace's
mom earned an Emmy nod in 2000.
Your later appearances on television finally convinced me to reconsider my lukewarm feelings about your talent.  Once you hit middle age, and started appearing as everybody's sassy mother, you had me.  I went back and watched some of your very early musical stylings, including one of the goofiest novelty numbers ever, "Abba Dabba Honeymoon".  I found that you had a bit of that sass even then. 
America's Sweetheart had her husband stolen by a sultry siren.
And a brief reading of your personal history made you even more interesting to me.  Three marriages, all of which ended in financial disaster for you, plus a daughter who put her contentious childhood on page and screen for all to see: you were an ingenue made of iron. 
At the 1964 Oscars, Deb had no idea her tablemate Shirley MacLaine
 would one day create a wickedly funny parody of her, in the film version
of Postcards From The Edge.

Daughter Carrie was in full
Mommie Dearest mode when she penned
the autobiographical novel,
Postcards From The Edge.
Then there was your shortlived TV show, which was cancelled when you made waves about accepting cigarette advertising. Your career tanked. 

I've become an admirer, Debbie, evidenced by the fact that you appeared in the one and only Saturday Dance Party, last year when hurricane Irene was roaring up the eastern seaboard.

But Debbie, I'm just not sure you can be forgiven for this week's clip.  Your rendition of this anthem to the counter-culture, while in a ball gown, with a chorus of dancers delivering hilariously incongruous choreography, well, it's almost too much.  But I think you have a healthy sense of humor about such things, or you would still be smarting from the notorious "it twirled up!" sequence in your daughter's tell-all movie.  So please allow us all to hoot and cringe through this week's Dance Party.  And Happy Birthday on Sunday, when you turn a whopping 80 years old!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Like Eliza On The Ice

Stephen Sondheim turned 82 yesterday, so of course, he must be the source of this week's Dance Party.  It's not like he hasn't been here before.
This sequence from West Side Story turned up quite a while ago, and when Karl Malden died, I took a look at the film version of Gypsy (though the video clip attached to my entry has since been removed, gotta love YouTube). 
Turn off your cellphone when Lupone's around,
or expect consequences.
In fact, Gypsy reappeared on the Dance Party, when Arthur Laurents died. 

Into the Woods was on my mind a few years ago, during a trip to L.A., so we enjoyed several moments in the woods.  When I caught the recent revival of Follies at the Kennedy Center, on its way, as it turned out, to Broadway and beyond,
Dorothy Loudon loses her mind.
I felt a little nostalgic for the late, great Dorothy Loudon.  And a song from one of Sondheim's rare movie scores, Dick Tracy, was presented, thankfully, without Madonna's interference.

This week's clip has a bit more significance for me, too.  Not only is it one of Sondheim's most clever songs (and he is surely the cleverest lyricist ever), it comes from one of his New York musicals.  Steve has no problem placing his shows anywhere they need to be placed, but he seems to have a special affinity for New York City. 

Bernadette in Follies received
lukewarm reviews in DC. They
changed her dress in NY,
and she was a hit.
His very first full musical, Saturday Night, takes place there, as does West Side Story (of course), Follies, and large parts of Merrily We Roll Along.  Most of the second act of Sunday in the Park With George also takes place in New York.
The original Company featured a multi-leveled, abstract set,
reflecting the alienation of New York living. I can relate.
The most Manhattanish of all his works, though, is surely Company.  (I wrote a bit about the most recent Broadway revival of Company here;  it's the one where everybody carried around a tuba or something equally awkward).
You could drive a person crazy with those horns.
Company is sometimes pointed to as a prime example of the concept musical, where the idea or theme of the piece takes precedence over a traditional plot. 
Elaine Stritch took no prisoners in
the original Company.
It's certainly not a book musical, as it moves in a non-linear fashion, and it certainly is not a sung-through piece, as it contains lots of scripted scenes (by George Furth).  In one, a prospective bride goes a little nuts, with all the anxiety surrounding her.  I can sympathize.  I am going a little nuts myself, with all the anxiety surrounding me this week, perhaps that's fodder for a future entry.  For now, though, we can revel in the expert delivery of a very complicated song from Company, provided by one of the great comic losses of recent times, Madeline Kahn.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Where History And Aggie Boys Get Made

Edna Milton Chadwell
1928-2012
She was the 8th of 11 children, born into a poverty stricken family in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma; she grew up during the Depression.  She dropped out of school in the third grade, and was married as a young teen.  She gave birth to a son, who died, and was divorced by her husband.  Penniless and pretty desperate, she turned to prostitution.  Well, wouldn't you?
The hookers from LaGrange, in the early part
of the 20th Century. Get a load of those ankles.
Now the story really gets good.  In 1952, she landed in a brothel located outside the small town of LaGrange, Texas. As with restaurants, it was all about location, location, location, and as the whorehouse was only two blocks off the highway between Houston and Austin, it did banging business.  Our Edna had a good head for the enterprise, and a good business sense too, so she bought the place when the previous madam died. 
Miss Edna took over ownership in the early 60s.
Her rules for the brothel were strict and well-enforced.  The gals did not fraternize with the townfolk (other than in a business sense), though they were encouraged to support local businesses;  they visited the doctor weekly to circumvent any unpleasant social diseases.  No alcohol was allowed on the premises, and no tattoos were allowed on the merchandise.  A direct phone line was installed to the sheriff's office, in case there was any trouble with the clientele.

The gals did their duty for the troops, from
1894-1973. During the World Wars, they
sent cookies.
The brothel had been in existence since before WWI.  When the depression hit, and cash was scarce, customers began paying for their fun with poultry, one chicken per sex act. The backyard exploded with chickens, and the whorehouse picked up additional income from the sale of eggs. The place became known as The Chicken Ranch, and received regular visits from politicians, soldiers, and freshmen from Texas A&M.  Though prostitution was illegal in Texas, the Chicken Ranch and its proprietress Miss Edna were so popular, everybody looked the other way. On busy nights, a deputy sheriff was dispatched to the ranch to help park cars. Visiting the Chicken Ranch was considered a right of passage for college boys, and it was commonly quipped that more politicians had spent the night there than at the Driscoll Hotel and the Governor's Mansion combined. 
Zindler sent his team inside, for hard confirmation
that there was, in fact, prostitution going on.
They said yes.
That is, until TV reporter Marvin Zindler from Houston got into the act.  He spent weeks hiding in the bushes, snapping photos of the clientele, and he sent his associate and cameraman inside to do some investigating undercover.  His reports forced the governor to order the place shut down, and in 1973, it was.  The doors were bolted, and the prostitutes all left to survive a hard candy Christmas.

If you think this sounds like great source material for a musical, you're too late.

Carlyn Glenn won a Tony playing the madam
based on Edna Milton Chadwell.
The story became The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which opened on  Broadway in 1978 and ran well over 1000 performances.  The show won  Tonys for stars Carlyn Glenn, in the role inspired by Edna Milton Chadwell, and Henderson Forsythe, as the sheriff. 
Henderson Forsythe was in the midst of
a 32-year run on As The World Turns
when he unexpectedly won the Tony as
Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
More importantly, the show afforded Tommy Tune his first chance to direct and choreograph a musical (Tommy got his own Dance Party a few weeks ago, when he turned 73).  Alexis Smith played Miss Mona (thank god they changed the name from Miss Edna) in the First National Tour (which spent 7 months in Los Angeles), and in 2001, a major revival starring Ann-Margaret, in her theatrical stage debut, took to the road (a cast album of that production is available. A-M sounds pretty good for her age, but I heard in the theatre, she was somnabulent).
Ann-Margaret's Miss Mona wore gowns by
Bob Mackie. The high-profile tour spawned a new cast album,
but failed to reach Broadway.
Parton made a splash in her film debut in 9-5,
she chose this film as her follow-up.
Dolly Parton bought the film rights as a vehicle for herself, and the resulting movie was quite different from the original.  Parton was too young for the part as written;  the original love story between the madam and the sheriff was in the past, looked back upon by the wistfully middle-aged couple. 
Broadway stars Glenn and Forsythe delivered mature, no-nonsense
yet tender performances.
For the film, the comedy was played up,
and the melancholy disappeared.
With Parton and Burt Reynolds in the roles, the love story moved to the present, at the expense of several interesting subplots.  The movie version was despised by Miss Edna, who claimed there was nothing right about the film except that it happened in a whorehouse. What that unhappy hooker failed to accept was the fact that the ensemble musical which she had endorsed on Broadway had now become a star vehicle on film. 
Dolly's happy. Her inclusion of "I Will Always
Love You" put the song back on the charts.
Parton herself wrote several new songs for the movie, including a regrettable duet with Reynolds, who should never have attempted a musical. And she took the opportunity to incorporate her old standby song, "I Will Always Love You," into the show, which brought further attention to that perennial.  In addition to the soundtrack of the film, Dolly re-recorded one of the original songs from the show, "Hard Candy Christmas,'" removing the backup singers;  she had another hit with the tune. 
Theresa Merritt could have handled her character's big
number, but it was cut.
Sadly, the movie jettisoned several memorable songs from the original score, including a soul-tinged showstopper sung by the brothel's housekeeper (who was also based on a real person, the only black who ever crossed the threshold of the Chicken Ranch, on staff or as a customer).
WKRP alum Gary Sandy played
the Sheriff opposite Ann-Margaret;
his rendition of "Good Old Girl" is
excellent.
Another casualty is my favorite number from the show, a bittersweet ballad sung by the sheriff (but we'd be crazy to think the melancholy "Good Old Girl" would ever be accepted as a  love song to the flamboyant, vivacious Dolly Parton).  But my quibbling aside, I have to admit that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a fun film to watch.  The title caused some trouble in distribution, especially in the heartland where, hypocritically, the actual whorehouse had been allowed to operate for decades. 
Like Bring Back Birdie
and Annie Warbucks,
this stage sequel flopped.
The movie was sometimes called "Best Little Cathouse..." or "Best Little Chicken House...". The Bible Belt needn't have worried; as Miss Mona proclaims in the film,"There's nothin' dirty goin' on."  The critical reception to the piece was mixed, but when the box office receipts were tallied, the movie was the most successful musical of the 1980s.
As a casting stunt,
Miss Edna appeared on Broadway as her
predecessor Miss Jesse.
Edna Milton Chadwell, as I said, hated the film but had no misgivings about the stage play;  she even spent some time in a non-speaking role in the Broadway production.  Speaking of that original production, it was nominated for 7 Tony Awards, and a song was presented on the Tony broadcast that year.  You can see the clip here, and be amused by the number of bleeps the censors added, in attempting to hide the subtext of the number.

That same number from the movie is this week's Dance Party.
Only one black guy on the football team? And in reality,
he would not have been allowed through the door of the Chicken Ranch,
even in 1973.

Melvin P. Thorpe and Marvin Zindler both proclaimed
"Texas has a whorehouse in it."
The film had an all-star cast:  alongside Dolly, the movie is inhabited by Burt Reynolds, in an ill-advised musical role, Dom DeLuise, who is outrageously over-the-top as the TV reporter (Dom got his own Dance Party a long while ago, as well as an obit), Jim Nabors, who is unwatchable, and Charles Durning, who earned an Oscar nomination for his sly turn as the governor of Texas. 
Despite his heft, Durning could have had a career in musicals.
I saw him in Ballroom, waltzing like a pro. His rendition of
"The Sidestep" was the highlight of Whorehouse.
None of those people appear in this week's Dance Party (though you may recognise character actor Robert Mandan as the Senator).  Instead, enjoy the Texas A&M football team getting ready for their reward for winning the big game. If there is a more homoerotic number in a mainstream musical, I've never seen it.
Jeff Calhoun is now a respected
stage director/choreographer. We worked together
on a concert reading of Parade several years ago.
The redheaded kid who has several solo moments is a cutie named Tim Topper, and stay on the lookout for the quarterback of the team (he speaks to the Senator first, and tosses him the football).  It's  director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who is currently prepping Disney's Newsies for Broadway.

The woman who inspired the whole thing, Edna Milton Chadwell, died last week at the age of 84.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Dance Party: The Birdwoman, The Mancub, and Tall Paul

A wooden performance by Sally Ann Howes.
Robert Sherman
1925-2012
I had to check Wikipedia to learn if he was the composer or the lyricist, as everybody knows him and his brother simply as The Sherman Brothers. 
Poppins shoved her charges up the chimney,
then allowed dancing on the rooftop.
Child endangerment charges are pending.
Anyone who grew up in the 60s has a fond familiarity with his song catalogue;  his best known score was probably for Mary Poppins, for which he won both his Oscars. 
The Shermans' careers were inexorably linked to Disney, beginning with one of their hit songs written before their film career took off, "Tall Paul."
Annette was the first female vocalist to crack
the Top Ten with a rock-and-roll tune.
The song was a hit for Annette Funicello, and launched the brothers' long association with the Disney factory.  It was because of this association that I'm afraid I did not have a huge respect for Robert Sherman's work back in the day.  (For a while there, I thought his other big hit, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, actually was a Disney film, there were so many similarities in the look, sound and even casting of the film).  Yeah, I'm that stupid. 
This car did everything but tapdance.
Anyway, as soon as I reached my teen-aged years, I dismissed Robert Sherman's work as childish and simplistic. 
The Shermans were tasked with writing
songs for Greer Garson and Geraldine Page.
Though I've changed my mind about that nowadays, it can't be denied that there is a Sherman Sound which connects most of their film scores (here's a fun fact: Wiki tells me that the Sherman Brothers scored more feature films than any other songwriting team). 
They wrote the title song.
Even today, I have to think carefully when I hear one of the guys' standards;  I'm often unable to determine which film the song is from.  Come on, you have to admit that many of the songs from Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bednobs and Broomsticks, and others, have a very similar sound.   
The Slipper and the Rose
featured Richard Chamberlain as
Cinderella's Prince.
He really wanted her shoes.
Once I discovered Sondheim, and examined Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin, I was no longer interested in somebody who routinely wrapped songs around invented words.

Of course, I was wrong to dismiss the Shermans' work.  Robert's melodies stand the test of time, and in particular, his ballads such as "Feed the Birds" and "Hushabye Mountain" delivered emotion which was simple and clean.  Simple, but not simplistic.  And those ballads, melodically, are unforgettable and even a bit haunting.
She never spoke, but was at the center of one of Sherman's
most beautiful ballads. Jane Darwell won the Oscar for
Grapes of Wrath. Mary Poppins was her final film.
The Shermans work usually did not play well on the stage, unless they were adapting one of their preexisting films. 
Tommy broke his foot. Investors
fled, and Busker Alley died
on the road.
Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty both had substantial runs onstage (at least in London), but their Busker Alley did not survive star Tommy Tune's broken foot, and never made it to Broadway.  You may be detecting a reticent tone to this obit, and it's true, I still don't consider the Sherman Brothers  one (or two) of my favorites.  That having been confessed, it's telling that their work has appeared twice in these pages already.

Lionel Jeffries was younger than
Dick Van Dyke, who played his son.
When character actor Lionel Jeffries died, his watery solo number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was featured.  And I had almost forgotten that the Shermans scored one of my favorite live-action musicals from my childhood, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.  That clip is definitely worth watching, as it includes a dozen stars to be glimpsed, as well as a swell dance-off between Lesley Ann Warren and Goldie Hawn.
Goldie Hawn is on the far left, in mustard. A year later, she
was swiping sketches on Laugh-In.
But what about this week's Dance Party?  Nothing with flying nannies or flying cars, thank you, let's go to the Brothers' animation portfolio.
Before Walt Disney died, the Shermans were the go-to guys to provide songs for the animated features which made all the money for the studio.  After Walt died, the team left the studio, and there was a drought of strong cartoon features from Disney.  It wasn't until 1989 that Disney animation experienced a revival, with The Little Mermaid.  By then, the Shermans were passe, and the so-called renaissance of the animated movie musical fell into the hands of Howard Menken and his collaborators.


Swing music great Louis Prima
as King Louis
Howard and his partners will just have to wait for their own Dance Party, this week's can feature no one but the Shermans.  Robert and his brother provided the score to one of my favorite Disney animated features, The Jungle Book
Ron Howard's little brother Clint voiced Hathi, Jr.
Listening to this music this week, and in particular this week's clip, I was surprised to realize that the Shermans could actually write in a style different from the perky, generic one which permeates Poppins and her brethren.  For The Jungle Book, the brothers created a song which sounds right out of the beat generation.  This clip encourages me to investigate the Shermans' only musical to be created for the stage and to become a hit, Over Here.  That show was a tribute, in a way, to the Big Band era, and starred two of the three Andrews Sisters (the third had already died), and I bet the score contains some wonderful swing numbers.
Over Here had a swell ensemble.
Anyhoo, The Jungle Book, as I said, was probably my favorite animated movie to be produced by Disney himself.  It's important for another reason, as several of the voice cast were stars in their own right. 

Though common (and even required) today, back then, it was fairly unusual for an established star to lend his voice to a cartoon.  Here, though, we have George Sanders, Phil Harris, and Sebastian Cabot joining forces with Disney standbys Sterling Holloway and J. Pat O'Malley. 
The Vultures were to be voiced by The Beatles.
But nobody told them. They declined; one of their replacements
was Chad Stewart, of pop group Chad & Jeremy.
And of course, the Dance Party clip showcases an exuberant vocal performance from Louis Prima.  (He is playing a role, by the way, which does not appear in the Kipling stories which formed the film's source material.  But King Louis fits right into the swing of things).

The catchy song below almost makes up for the fact that Robert and Richard Sherman are responsible for one of the most irritating tunes ever to embed itself in your brain. 
A trip on this ride infects your brain with its
theme song. Your brain does not recover.
If you have ever visited Disneyland, and taken that slow boat ride through the tunnel which takes you around the world as seen through the eyes of children, you know exactly which song I mean.

Robert Sherman died this week, at the age of 86.