DC Theatre Scene Editor Lorraine Treanor’s touching tribute to Fran Landesman, who died last month, provides the impetus for this week’s Theatre Shelf column.
Landesman wrote lyrics for only one Broadway show, and that show ran only 23 performances, but the original Broadway cast recording which Goddard Lieberson produced for Columbia Records in 1959 provides a means of recalling her brief moment in the bright lights of Broadway and a satisfying sampling of her lyrical touch.
Landesman wrote lyrics for The Nervous Set which sit nicely on the jazz-inflected melodies of long time collaborator Tommy Wolf. The show was about Beatniks — the hippies or rappers of their day. They reflected the voice of the Beat movement which, while never capturing a large number of adherents, developed a distinctive voice of its own on the cusp of popular culture of the day.
Her credentials as a card carrying member of the Beat generation earned her words the authenticity that let the powers that be of the day accept them as authentic, even if they didn’t quite judge them to be of the high standard that some others writing for Broadway achieved.
That judgement was, however, both excessively parochial and overly harsh when you consider the actual art involved in her poetry.
It was as if the critics of the day felt that the way Broadway lyrics were structured was the way Broadway lyrics should be structured, and that any diversion was a digression.
Time has proven that innovation is the life blood of an art form, and that Landesman’s work should have been judged on how well she accomplished what she set out to do, not on how well she imitated Alan Jay Lerner, Larry Hart or Ira Gershwin.
Heard: “Man, We’re Beat” – Cast
“What’s to Lose/The Stars Have Blown My Way” – Tani Seitz and Richard Hayes
“How Do You Like Your Love?” – Del Close
“Party Song” (Reprise) – cast
“Ballad of the Sad Young Men” – Tani Seitz
On that basis, an evening spent listening to her lyrics for The Nervous Set should convince you that she had both a finger on the pulse of a significant subculture of her day and the talent to translate their often strange and witty language into true poetry. (The program in the theatre included a glossary of Beat terms, something that we could use today but which is, sadly, not provided in the current electronic release.)
At one point in its development, The Nervous Set had included one of the great jazz standards that flowed from Landesman’s pen, but it was cut before the Broadway opening and, thus, was not recorded on the show’s album. That was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” a heart felt lament that was in touch with the Beat tongue. It was recorded by many of the great interpreters of American pop songs including a truly touching reading by Ella Fitzgerald. That recording is hard to find but you can download an MP3 from Amazon as ASIN B000W03KH8.
The latest singer to add her voice to the song’s list of interpreters is Karrin Allyson who included a tasteful rendering in her new album ‘Round Midnight on Concord Jazz Records. It is available as ASIN B004SC8WCY.
Another song that went on to earn the status of a standard did survive the pre-Broadway culling. “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” put voice to the disillusionment that the Beat generation held dear. It is sung with a very appropriately flat reading (appropriate, that is, to the Beat setting of the story) by Tani Seitz. Never heard of Tani Seitz? She had a brief Broadway career in small roles in the 1950s and was a replacement Morgan Le Fey in Camelot.
The only cast member whose name is likely to ring a bell today is Larry Hagman, the son of Mary Martin who made more of a name for himself on the small screen as JR on the prime-time soap opera “Dallas” throughout the 1990s.
The Nervous Set played its brief run in Henry Miller’s Theatre on West 43rd Street — the facade of which has been preserved for the new Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In those days, it was a respectable thousand-seat house that hosted more plays than musicals. No barn-burning mega-musical, The Nervous Set boasted a cast of fourteen and, instead of an orchestra, a jazz quartet with composer/music director Wolf on the piano and later legend Kenny Burrell on guitar.
John Stewart’s “Broadway Musicals, 1943-2004” simply says “Reviews were not good.” Not good? How about: “It was a happy moment when our tootsies started trotting to the Henry Miller’s exit” (Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror) or “There is nothing here that Cole Porter couldn’t have done twenty times better, while well dressed” (Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune.)
Thank goodness for Goddard Lieberson, the Columbia Records czar of the Original Broadway Cast album. He had the foresight to capture the score pretty much as it was heard in the theatre. True, it sounds more like a jazz club act or a cabaret routine than a Broadway musical. But it includes unexpected pleasures that make it a worthy addition to your Theatre Shelf.
Thank goodness too for the leadership of Masterworks Broadway who have chosen to release the album again through their MP3 download program.
You can download it from Amazon as ASIN B005DPSYI2.