Monday, August 26, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Last Cut Is The Deepest

There's good news and bad news this week on the Dance Party.  The good news is, our star, for the first time in a long while, is not dead.  The bad news:  her career is.
Linda Ronstadt
When Linda officially retired two years ago, we all wondered if something was up.  It was.  This week, Ronstadt gave an interview to AARP (which in itself makes us all feel old), in which she revealed her Parkinson's diagnosis.  She cannot sing a note, she says.  Thankfully, her plentiful output of music over the decades will live on.

The Linda Ronstadt Songbook is an eclectic one.  She has had one of the most varied careers of anybody in the recording industry.  She was one of the first breakout stars of the 60s to help invent the cross-over genre Folk Rock, and in the 70s, she was the first female solo act to play (and sell out) arena stages. 
Ronstadt's recordings of old standards were innovative, even
radical;  pop superstars had no interest in such music until
Linda struck gold with the oldies.

In the 80s, in the midst of her pop career, she teamed up with Nelson Riddle to release a trio of albums of standards, a move highly unusual for a pop-rock superstar.  The project was an unexpected smash, reinvigorating Riddle's career and bringing attention to the forgotten hits of the 30s and 40s. 
Linda received the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement
award in 2011.  She took the ranchera music of her youth,
blended it with a country sound, and invented "Mexican

Linda also had great success with Latin music. 
Our gal was a good collaborator, and provided substantial items with other stars such as Dolly and Emmylou.
Linda even dabbled in operetta, appearing as the soprano lead in Pirates of Penzance, winning a Tony nomination and recreating her unusual performance in the filmed version of the show.
Ronstadt surprised everyone with her performance as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, displaying an impressive soprano range.  The production moved from Central Park to Broadway and ran for years. (One of my favorite Dance Parties comes from the version taped in the park, go here to see Kevin Kline and Rex Smith stop the show.) Linda received a Tony nomination (she lost the award to Lauren Bacall) and a Golden Globe nod when the film version was released.
Ronstadt deserves a lot of credit for her wide variety of music, but when her name is mentioned, her pop songs come to mind.  She was an expert interpreter, and many of her biggest hits were plucked from the early days of rock and roll, and country. 
An attempt at legit opera, as Mimi
in La Boheme, flopped.

But she did more than simply cover earlier songs, she reinterpreted them so thoroughly that everybody thought they were new (at least, I did).  This week's Dance Party is an example;  Linda's recording revived interest in a long-forgotten Buddy Holly song from the late 50s.  The tune has since been covered by everybody from Paul McCartney to Zooey Deschanel.  The Beatles sang it, as did Alvin and the Chipmunks.  But Ronstadt's is surely the definitive version.  It's very sad to know she will never be singing it again.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Friday Dance Party: The Bossa-Nova Balladeer

When this songstress died last week, she took a part of Old Show Business with her.

Eydie Gorme
I suppose history considers the most glamorous years of Hollywood to be its golden age of the 30s and 40s, with the studio system creating glittering stars who showed up to film premieres dripping in fur and diamonds. 
Hollywood Palace, Ed Sullivan, Dean
Martin, Carol Burnett: Gorme was a
glammed-up guest on them all.

But when I think of the glamor of show business, I think of the 60s and 70s, when I was glued to the television, watching entertainers such as Eydie Gorme on variety and talk shows.  It was an era when singers were in tuxedos for the gents, and evening gowns for the ladies.  It was not uncommon to see a star walk onto Johnny Carson's set in formal evening attire;  such a thing would be fodder for comedy on today's talk show circuit.  But I loved watching the glamorous stars of that era singing their tunes on the variety shows of the day, and Gorme was a regular visitor to such programs.
I'm sure the first time I ran across Eydie Gorme, it was as a guest on The Carol Burnett Show.  She appeared regularly throughout the show's run, sometimes with her husband, but just as often solo.
She got her start on a variety show, headed by Steve Allen.  It was on that program that she met Steve Lawrence.  Their marriage was legendary in show business, and they appeared as a couple many, many times on TV as I was growing up. 
The marriage of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme lasted a whopping 55 years, unheard of in show biz circles.  During their heyday in the 60s and 70s, the mere mention of their first names conjured them up.  Like Lucy and Desi, and Liz and Dick, everybody knew Steve and Eydie.
In addition to performing with her husband, Eydie had an ongoing solo career (Steve did, too), including her massive popularity in Latin American culture.  Her recordings with Trio Los Panchos were big hits south of the border, and she was arguably a bigger star in Spanish speaking countries than in the states. 
Eydie's bilingual talents led to a job interpreting at the U.N.
She soon left the diplomatic life to become a star. In Latin
America, she's huge.

She did fine here, though, beginning with a splashy hit called "Blame It On The Bossa Nova" in 1963. The song became an enduring part of pop culture once Gorme made it famous.  It was covered numerous times over the years;  Annette Funicello's recording made a surprisingly hilarious appearance in this moment from The West Wing:

I enjoyed Gorme's interpretations of various Broadway ballads more than her flings with swing.  Over the years, she plucked showtunes from the Broadway stage which reflected love, regret, and determination, then belted them out over the airwaves for wallflowers like me to hear them. 
The Gorme belt turned many a Broadway tune into a
popular song.

There are numerous clips out there of her renditions of such songs, so many that I could not choose which to use for this week's Dance Party.  If you care to, you can go here for her version of "What Did I Have..." from On A Clear Day..., go here for "As Long As He Needs Me" from Oliver, go here for "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line, and go here for the title number from The Way We Were (yes, I know that's a film, but what the hell...).  
Our gal's biggest hit from her repertoire
of Broadway Ballads was surely "If He
Walked Into My Life" from Mame. She
won the Grammy for that recording.

Considering her success recording showtunes, it's odd that Eydie Gorme appeared only once on Broadway.  On the strength of the stars' popularity, the show ran over a year, transferring from the Shubert to a smaller house at the end of its run.  Largely forgotten now, Golden Rainbow produced a solid standard tune for Lawrence (and for Sammy Davis, Jr.) in "I Gotta Be Me."  A very young Scott Jacoby was nominated for a Tony, playing Steve's son.
Though it was not a hit on the Billboard charts, "This Could Be The Start of Something Big" is probably the signature song for the Steve and Eydie duo, and the clip below illustrates exactly what I mean when I write of Old Show Business: our gang includes Dinah Shore, Steve Allen, and Ann Southern, all of whom are dressed to the nines and having a ball with this cheesy routine.  I can just imagine all these stars going out to the hottest nightclub after taping their shows, hobnobbing with the other glamour stars of the day;  that's what Show Business meant to me back then. 

Frank came through in a time
of crisis for Eydie.
While not technically part of the Sinatra-Martin-Davis gang which dominated Show Business in the 60s, Steve and Eydie were surely Rat Pack-Adjacent.  They were old friends with the entire group, and their Vegas show was as successful as any.  When the couple's son Michael died in 1986, Sinatra sent his private plane to ferry them home from a concert gig in Atlanta.

I graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1979; a few years later, Steve and Eydie's youngest son Michael enrolled in the department I had just left.  I met the young gent only once, but have friends who worked with him on campus in several musicals, which were warmly supported by his parents.  Michael died very unexpectedly from a heart problem when he was only 23.  Steve and Eydie ceased touring for a year to recover.

In lieu of one of Gorme's ballad performances, this week's final clip comes from an early appearance on the Tonight Show.  She was a regular and welcome guest for both Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, and always brought down the house with her song.  As everybody knows, Eydie died last week, just a week shy of her 85th birthday.  Show Business will never be quite the same to me.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Ribbons Down Her Back

The star of this week's Dance Party died early this week.

Eileen Brennan
When news of Brennan's death became public this week, Facebook filled up with tributes and remembrances of her work.  
Everyone loved Mrs. Peacock, her role in
Clue. I never saw it, but apparently she
delivered a comic speech which is still
quoted today.

That work was most often comedic, as she was rightfully considered an exceptional comic actress. 
When Eileen died, I recalled a little performance she gave in the PBS adaptation of Working, the Musical.  Go here for that clip.

Our gal may be most widely remembered from her performance in the various incarnations of Private Benjamin. 
Her role in Private Benjamin earned an Oscar nomination, which she lost to Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard.  When the film transferred to television, Eileen went with it, and won the Emmy and Golden Globe.

As Zondra, the witheringly acerbic acting coach on
Will and Grace.  The role earned one of her many
Emmy nominations.

Eileen spent a good part of her career in television, earning Emmy nominations for work in Newhart, Will and Grace, Taxi, and thirtysomething.  But her feature film work was also substantial, including memorable roles in The Last Picture Show, The Sting, Murder By Death, and The Cheap Detective.  She spent several months as a regular on Laugh-In, where she became buddies with Goldie Hawn, with whom she later shared the big screen in Private Benjamin.  In 1982, after dining with Hawn, she was critically injured by a passing car;  the injury severely affected her life and her career. 
Her performance in The Last Picture Show was
the beginning of a long association with director
Peter Bogdanovich.

She endured a gruelling three years of rehabilitation after her accident, and struggled for the rest of her life with a dependence on prescription drugs.

As 1959's Little Mary Sunshine.

Eileen Brennan's first splash came with the title role of the Off-Broadway parody of light operetta, Little Mary Sunshine, for which she won the Obie in 1959. 
She's got elegance, as the original Irene
Malloy in Hello, Dolly! That's Charles
Nelson Reilly on the far left.

In 1964, she created the role of Irene Malloy in the original cast of Hello, Dolly!, in which she introduced the Jerry Herman classic ballad, "Ribbons Down My Back."
Known primarily for her film work these days, Eileen spent her early years in musical theatre.  Here she is as Anna in The King And I.
Once she landed in Hollywood, her musical theatre background was largely forgotten, until 1975. 
Brennan was nominated for the Emmy
all three seasons of Private Benjamin,
winning in 1981.

Brennan was a favorite of director Peter Bogdanovitch, who used her in The Last Picture Show (and the sequel, Texasville), as well as in Daisy Miller;  when the director was casting his ill-fated musical At Long Last Love, he cast Eileen in the part of Madeline Kahn's maid.
Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn, and Eileen Brennan in At Long Last Love.  This week's Dance Party comes from that notorious project.
At Long Last Love is both despised and admired.  Bogdanovich was attempting to recreate the golden age of film musicals, and used the Cole Porter songbook to construct a musical flambe, which became instead a musical flameout. 
A stellar cast and sparkling cinematography
could not save At Long Last Love.

The film was the first since the 1930s to feature musical numbers which were filmed live, rather than being recorded in advance.  
"C'mon in, this is free!" Perhaps in an attempt to emulate those musical sequences in which Astaire and others filmed the full number in a single shot, Bogdanovich does the same with this week's Dance Party. He does his stars no favors, as their hoofing is occasionally out of sync.  The film has not seen a release on DVD, though a Blu-ray edition has recently become available.  Hopefully you'll enjoy our Eileen returning to her musical theatre roots.
It was a lousy decision, to record the numbers live onset, considering that several of the starring cast were not comfortable singing. 
Once this flop was released, everyone ran for cover.
Eileen Brennan was a breast cancer survivor, but succumbed to bladder cancer this week, at the age of 80.