Consumer safety alert! This disk contains more songs with catchy rhythms that stick in your head than most heads can hold. Listen only when you have time to push repeat repeatedly.
Music, as everyone knows, can be a very effective time machine. Hear a song from your youth and it triggers synapses in the brain that bring back things you may not have thought about for ages. Even if you’ve never been to a place or a period, its music can transport you there.
PS Classic’s new studio recording of the 1934 Broadway topical revue Life Begins at 8:40 is a double barreled time machine. It can transport you to the Winter Garden Theatre in New York at a time when Ray Bolger and Burt Lahr were headlining a revue that carried forward and improved on the traditions of the Ziegfeld Follies and their more modern offspring like Irving Berlin’s As Thousand’s Cheer.
There’s another setting on this particular time machine, however. It transports us back just five months, to March 22 when the Library of Congress, with the financial support of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust, presented this score in a concert featuring a full orchestra and ensemble onstage behind an impressive list of modern-day headliners. The effort that resulted in that charming and memorable concert also resulted in this recording of the score by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin.
The headliners involved? How about Brad Oscar in the roles originated by Bert Lahr? Now that’s a fine piece of casting! For the songs that Ray Bolger sang in the show, the concert/recording has Christopher Fitzgerald, fresh from the Broadway revival of another Harburg classic, Finian’s Rainbow. His co-star in that revival, Kate Baldwin, co-starred here along with other Broadway stars such as Faith Prince, Rebecca Luker and Montego Glover. Add Philip Chaffin, Graham Rowat and Jessica Stone, and you have a strong cast in all departments.
The recording was made in New York, so the musicians who played in the orchestra at the Library of Congress weren’t the same ones who are on the recording, but both were under the musical direction of Aaron Grandy. They are playing the original orchestrations of Hans Spialek, Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker as restored by Larry Moore. Steven Suskin’s invaluable book “The Sound of Broadway Music” clarifies that the majority of the music recorded here was orchestrated by Spialek.
Strangely, the otherwise excellent essay by theater historian Christopher Caggiano that sketches both the history of the art form of topical revues and the development of this singular collaboration between lyricists Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin doesn’t even touch on the question of who wrote which lyric. It would have been helpful had he dispensed with the question by affirming that this was not a case of Yip doing one song and Ira doing another. In the marvelous biography of Harburg “Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz,” Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg quote Yip himself saying that Arlen, Gershwin and he “got together every night at nine or ten o’clock and worked till four o’clock in the morning with Harold at the piano, and it was joyous. George was busy writing Porgy and Bess. He had a penthouse across the street on Seventy-second Street. Ira lived on the North side of the street and George lived on the south. We would get together at George’s place (and he would play) what he was doing on Porgy and Bess and we would play him what we were doing on Life Begins at 8:40. They were glorious days.” Indeed, they must have been – ah, to have been able to be a fly flitting back and forth during those creative nights!
The collaboration of Harburg and Gershwin resulted in some great light verse stanzas:
You’re a builder-upper,
And I’m a giver-inner;|
Sad but true,
I’m a saperoo, too,
Taking it from a taker-over like you.
People still believed in love.
They believed that love
Was a sacred flame.
And they married first –
Then the baby came.
That was long ago,
That was far away,
Once upon a time.
and some delightful word play:
Duets are made by the bourgeoisie-o,
But only God can make a trio.
The packaging does include a glossary of references that would have been familiar to a 1934 audience but which might fall flat now nearly 75 years later. It isn’t as complete as it might have been, however. Some oversights may be more geographic than chronological. It fails to let the reader/listener know what Brad Oscar (as Bert Lahr) means when referring to “living in a little garret on the Left Bank … of the Gowanas Canal.” I suppose just about as many New Yorkers today know that the Gowanus Canal is a former shipping canal that runs through Brooklyn as was the case in 1934, but it isn’t something many people living west of the Hudson River are likely to recognize.
Included in their glossary are Tammany Hall, Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia and even Grover Whalen who served as LaGuardia’s appointee as the official greeter of the City of New York, but it doesn’t mention the most obscure reference in the finale which pokes fun at the LaGuardia administration, Tammany Hall boss John F. Curry. His name plays in the marvelous lyric “Tammany Hall is growing graver, For I never curry favor. And I never, never, never favor curry!”
But no glossary or even lengthy essay could possibly do justice to the flitting, flighty humor embedded in these songs. Some of that humor is obvious on its face, such as the song bemoaning the lack of a love song in the show and then launching into a parody of love songs under the rubric “What Can You Say In A Love Song (That Hasn’t Been Said Before)?” Some come in rapid fire succession as in the opening number that plays with then-current hits of Kate Smith, Rudy Valley, Bing Crosby, Harpo Marx and even the show’s own composer, Harold Arlen, in just under ninety seconds before pronouncing it time to get on with the show.
As is often the case, PS Classics has done a superb job on both the recording and the packaging of this flighty confection with a title that is a play on the then-current best seller’s title “Life Begins at Forty” and the fact that many Broadway shows in the 1930s began at 8:40. Its hard to say, however, just why the photo on the cover is of a woman standing before a clock face with her hands extended. Depending on which arm is the short and which the long, she’s either indicating 8:15 or 3:40 … but not 8:40!