Songster: noun. a person who sings

Imagine the curl of the lip a few years ago when one of my brood handed me an unwanted Powerbook loaded with iTunes, and I discovered that the boffins at Apple had determined that every movement of every symphony I had ever known was now a ‘song’. But, after a moment or two of deep contemplation, a glass of Gem Ale [a fine choice – don’t forget to enter our competition – closes Tuesday! Ed], and a wedge of mature cheddar, I managed to remove my head from my nether-regions, deciding that Steve and the boys were perhaps not so far off-key, and that every ‘modulated utterance’ for the last thousand years has started at least, as a song – an idea in sound. And although Tony Palmer would have had us believing that the Fab Four (or at least two of them) were the greatest songwriters since Schubert, he somehow overlooked the fifty golden years in America that pre-date the Beatles, and make-up the vast legacy that has come to be known as the American Songbook. A few days ago John Halliwell, stuck on the eternal baggage carousel of life, gave us just one of the immortals, Cole Porter. Today, a few more.

In 1927 the idea of a musical featuring alcoholism, marital discord and racism must have looked a long shot. But with encouragement from Florenz Ziegfeld and wordsmith Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern gave the world Show Boat and, overnight, made his name. How the world has changed in the 80 odd years since can be judged in ‘Ah Still Suits Me’ with plenty of eye-rolling from Paul Robeson’s Joe and Hattie McDaniel’s Queenie.

John Kander and Fred Ebb may have fallen a little short of immortality but two shows, Chicago and Cabaret, will ensure their names live on. Here, from their 1997 show Steel Pier, the part of Shelby Stevens is reprised by Debra Monk, giving as good an example as you will ever see, of a songster selling a song, forcing the audience to love her.

With a classical training in Berlin, Frederick Loewe studied with the Chilean piano virtuoso Claudio Arrau, and the Italian polymath Ferruccio Busoni before following his singer-father to New York. There followed years of struggle and hardship before he met his long-time collaborator Alan Jay Lerner. He was in his mid 40’s when their first hit Brigadoon appeared, and a decade later came My Fair Lady, a massive hit worldwide, followed by Camelot and Gigi, from which this charming piece of fluff is taken. The old charmer Maurice Chevalier as Honore Lachaille has already given us ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ and here, with the inimitable Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez, the two aging lovers walk down memory lane to this delightful piece of sprechgesang, ‘I Remember It Well’.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim, now in his 80’s, is a living link to this bountiful era. As good as deserted by both of his parents as a teenager, he befriended the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, and soon became part of that talented family. As comfortable with lyrics (West Side Story, Gypsy) as he is fecund with music, he really has no equal in the arena of musical theatre. In 1973, inspired by the Bergman movie Smiles of a Summer Night, he produced the music and lyrics for perhaps his finest work A Little Night Music, from which the bittersweet irony of Send in the Clowns is taken. Here, with just the right sense of cool detachment Desiree, in the person of the majestic Glenn Close, reflects upon the disappointments of her life.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

6 thoughts on “Songster: noun. a person who sings

  1. Gaw
    March 20, 2011 at 15:39

    What a captivating way to spend a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon!

    I didn’t know that Glenn Close was even more talented than abundantly demonstrated by her acting – what a great voice, and delivery. But the first and third clips really made this LSA for me – in a little over two minutes apiece they contain what seems an unfeasible amount of wisdom and humour concerning the more seasoned aspects of romance.

    March 20, 2011 at 15:55

    What a refreshing selection of songsters/songstresses who can not only sing, but have stage presence too. I was totally charmed by Debra Monk and Maurice Chevalier and, like Gaw had no idea Glenn Close had such a strong singing voice. I’m pleased you’ve included Paul Robeson – I bought a collection of old His Masters Voice 78s the other day and a couple of them are by Robeson. Shame I am still without a record player…

    john halliwell
    March 20, 2011 at 16:35

    This post made me realise just how much classic American songs acted as the musical accompaniment to pre teenage, pre Presley years. Having read and listened to the post, I looked at Wikipedia’s page: ‘The Great American Songbook’, and the list of outstanding songs is far longer than I remembered or imagined.

    One of my favourites is Victor Young’s ‘When I Fall In Love’. I was always able to listen to it as ‘background’, while continuing to do something else, until I came across a recording by Jeri Southern that demanded complete attention. It is gloriously sultry, and understated.

    Apologies to you, Mahlerman, if it is not something you would want, even on the periphery, in another great Sunday post, but the urge to share is overwhelming.

    March 20, 2011 at 18:00

    Apologies JH? Au Contraire. The problem was reducing such a huge collection, with very little thin gruel, down to a manageable few minutes (‘What, no Irving Berlin – shame on you!’). And yes, the understated quality you treasured in Jeri Southern’s presentation is a common thread in much of this great music – which I put down to the matchless quality of the songs. So great were so many of the songs, that the ‘songsters’ had no need to drive them, X-Factor fashion, into our faces; they could ‘lean back’, and almost talk us through – Glenn Close being a good example of this Gaw, her cool composure speaking volumes, and saying more with less effortlessly

    Toby Ash
    March 20, 2011 at 21:26

    What at treat for a Sunday evening. Particularly loved the Robeson and McDaniel duet.

Comments are closed.