Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Pass the Peace Pipe

The star of this week's Dance Party was never a household name, though perhaps she should have been. Joan McCracken was one of those firecrackers who had the tendency to steal every scene she was in, though she never achieved major celebrity. She studied dance as a kid, and spent a bit of time as a ballet dancer, but her short, stocky frame was not suitable for a career in ballet. She appeared in several Broadway hits in the 40s, including her debut in the original Oklahoma, in which she was billed as "Sylvie, the Girl Who Falls Down." She claimed that her backstage breakdown during the run of Bloomer Girl was the inspiration for a scene in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Joan was married for 7 years to Bob Fosse, before he hooked up with Gwen Verdon.

I only became aware of McCracken when I was researching the obit for this gent:

Hugh Martin

Martin was a well-respected vocal arranger on Broadway, fulfilling those duties for Dubarry Was a Lady, The Boys from Syracuse, Sugar Babies, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and several others. His original compositions were heard in Best Foot Forward, High Spirits, and Look Ma! I'm Dancing!. He was nominated for four Tonys during his career, but it was his film work which provides his enduring legacy. Though he contributed songs to several musical films, his score to the 1944 Judy Garland movie Meet Me In St. Louis is now considered classic. For Judy, he provided two songs which became signature tunes for her, "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song" (Martin earned an Oscar nomination for the latter).

Even more impressively, Meet Me in St. Louis provided the world with an enduring Christmas song with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hugh's original lyrics for the song were a bit dark ("Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last...") Garland complained about the tone of the tune, and under pressure from the star and from the film's director, Vincente Minnelli, Martin jollied up the lyrics. As a result, the song has become a holiday perennial.

Hugh frequently accompanied Garland when she sang live, specifically for her celebrated concerts at the Palace Theatre in New York in the early 50s, the first of her famous comebacks.
Martin's second Oscar nomination came for this week's Dance Party. He contributed this number to the 1947 musical film Good News. Despite it's political incorrectness, it's a fun song, and our star Joan McCracken displays a lot of spunk. I imagine she is equally perky throughout the movie, but I've never seen Good News in its entirety. Frankly, I avoid musicals starring Peter Lawford.

Joan McCracken died of diabetes back in 1961. Composer Hugh Martin died last week, at the age of 96.