Thursday, March 17, 2011
Stage Door Canteen: Broadway Responds to WWII
I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the songs in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists “Stage Door Canteen: Broadway Responds to WWII” concert Monday afternoon. While it’s nice to hear new things, I would have liked more of the standards because the music from that era is the most beautiful and romantic music ever written.
Performances in the first act were uneven and the much better second act was a bit heavy on Army songs, but generally it was a satisfying afternoon of entertainment. Theatre historian Ted Chapin’s narration was a big factor, lending insight into the times, the songwriters and that magical real-life theatre district spot called the Stage Door Canteen, where A-list stars like Bette Davis, Ethel Merman and Ingrid Bergman entertained servicemen during the 1940s. (Interesting tidbit: no alcohol was served, but in a typical day 3,000 cigarettes were smoked and 25 pounds of candy eaten.)
Music director Andy Einhorn allowed for some unusual interpretations. One that didn’t work for me at all was Betsy Wolfe’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” especially given Chapin’s introduction. He said when Oscar Hammerstein heard in 1940 that Hitler had invaded Paris he did what poets do, he sat down and wrote a song. I whispered to my friend Trixy, “Oh, I love this song,” because I knew what was coming. It’s a song about someone who cherishes memories of a city whose “heart was warm and gay.” It’s sung with longing mingled with sadness that such a place could be occupied by such ugliness, but Wolfe (right in photo) sang it with a big smile and sounded like someone recounting a great vacation, missing the point entirely. Earlier she had sung a glorious “All the Things You Are.”
A far better experience of reinterpretation of a classic was Brandon Victor Dixon’s “God Bless America.” Usually sung in the Kate Smith boisterous style, Dixon offered a gentle, prayerful rendition that was so moving. Absolutely beautiful. I also liked his “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Jeffrey Denman’s “White Christmas” and Anderson Davis’ “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Each was presented first as a solo and then together as a harmonious medley. Charming.
Other highlights: Debra Monk’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Denman’s dancing (anyone who was fortunate enough to see him in Yank! knows how he can dance) and an audience sing-along to “Mairzy Doats.” (Monk is at left in photo, Denman center). I also liked the black and white photos that showed America at that momentous time in our history, pictures of Times Square, Broadway theatres, workers and soldiers.
The Stage Door Canteen, run by the American Theatre Wing, was a theater district club for servicemen with dancing, entertainment, food and a chance to hobnob with celebrities. Although it is long gone, a memorial plaque dedicated to its efforts can be seen on West 44th Street near Sardi’s. Chapin’s grandmother began volunteering at the Stage Door Canteen on its very first day.
“On the one hand, before Pearl Harbor Broadway provided escapist entertainment in which, for example, Winsocki was urged to ‘buckle down,’ and Cole Porter listed what celebrities might do when they go ‘Farming’”, Chapin said in press notes. “Then Broadway began to respond to the war with shows like Irving Berlin’s extraordinary This Is the Army. In the middle of the war, Oklahoma! opened and really captured the spirit of the country we were fighting for. Lyrics & Lyricists gives me a chance to explore the American Songbook of this era and to see the lasting effect WWII had on Broadway.”
Coming up in the Lyrics & Lyricists series:
April 30, May 1, 2
THE CROWD’S AT EL MOROCCO: THE HEYDAY OF THE NEW YORK NIGHTCLUBS
DEBORAH GRACE WINER, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR & HOST
JOHN ODDO, MUSIC DIRECTOR & PIANO
MARK WALDROP, STAGE DIRECTOR
Debby Boone, Vocals
La Tanya Hall, Vocals
James Naughton, Vocals
Billy Stritch, Vocals
Karen Ziemba, Vocals
May 21, 22, 23
CARRIED AWAY: BEING COMDEN AND GREEN
PHYLLIS NEWMAN, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR & HOST
LARRY YURMAN, MUSIC DIRECTOR
CARL ANDRESS, STAGE DIRECTOR
Mary Testa, Vocals
Max von Essen, Vocals
Zakiya Young, Vocals
Special Guest: Leslie Uggams
Additional artists to be announced
For more information, visit www.92Y.org/Lyrics.