Let’s see. Should I do a recording review of this CD of 29 songs by the man who wrote the memorable songs for the sparkling movie “Meet Me In St. Louis” and Broadway’s “Improbable Musical Comedy” High Spirits?
Or should I do a book review of the accompanying 84 page book which is much too thick and full of treasures to be called just a “booklet”?
How about both?
All of these riches are devoted to little known (or, in some cases, unknown) songs by the man who wrote such well known ones as “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door” and, the unforgettable “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” That, of course, would be Hugh Martin.
Note the parenthetical data in the subtitle “Songs for Stage and Screen (1941 – 2010).” What a span of time for one songwriter!
For nearly seventy years, when they said “They don’t write ’em like they used to” they had to exclude Mr. Martin. As this collection so deliciously demonstrates, he kept on writing them just as marvelously when he was in his nineties as he did in his twenties.
Martin, who died just last year, had a remarkable combination of a poetic command of language, a superb sense of syncopation and a talent for selecting a concept for a song that seemed simple but could carry profound or at least un-hackneyed messages.
Check out the swing of “The Three B’s” (that’s “the barrelhouse, the boogie-woogie and the blues”) from Best Foot Forward, the lilt of “Gotta Dance” from Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’!, the wistfulness of “I Happen to Love You” from Hans Brinker or the gentleness of his last completed song, “I Don’t Know What I Want” from the unproduced musical of Picnic.
The launch of Martin’s Broadway career is the stuff of legend – not as a song writer, but as a vocal arranger. As retold by Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization in his three page essay in this package, the story goes that the twenty-something Martin wrote his idol Richard Rodgers to ask why vocal arrangements for Broadway musicals didn’t “swing” the way vocal groups such as his own quartet did. Rodgers gave him a chance to prove it could work. The result was Martin’s arrangement for Rodger’s “Sing For Your Supper” in The Boys From Syracuse.
The show was a hit and so was the song with the swinging Andrews Sisters-like close harmony swing provided by Martin’s chart. Rodgers went from idol to mentor and Martin went from nightclub singer to full-fledged theatrical songwriter.
For decades, Martin was known principally (but not exclusively) as one half of the team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. What wasn’t known over those years was that they didn’t often write songs together. Each would write particular songs but then they would be published with both names. Blane apparently wrote few of the better known numbers, but he was a great song seller and his voice is heard often on this disc which is composed principally of demo recordings prepared to sell a specific project.
All of the songs in this collection come from the Martin side of the partnership. There are songs written for Broadway shows, some of which were actually produced. Others never reached the stage. Some songs are from produced or planned movies.
There are three cut songs from one of Martin’s most sparkling scores, the 1951 Make a Wish. One of those songs includes a lyric that illustrates his unique combination of precision and whimsey: “I’m the laziest kind of a wanderer / And a squanderer it’s true. / What is worse, I get fonder and fonderer / of ramblin’ and amblin’ through.”
The disc includes four songs written for the unproduced Here Come The Dreamers, a musical about people secretly living on the back lot of a movie studio which Martin said was “a direct steal” from the story that Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman later turned into the TV musical “Evening Primrose.” These have lyrics by Marshall Barer who wrote Once Upon a Mattress with Mary Rodgers.
The contrast between the music Martin wrote to his own lyrics and the music setting for the lyrics of others is interesting. When writing his own lyrics and music the songs sound as if the two spring from the same thought process. As Sheldon Harnick (himself no slouch as a lyricist!) says in his fascinating thirteen page essay on Martin, the lyricist, in this book, “I couldn’t help but wonder whether the music and the lyrics formed in Hugh’s mind more or less simultaneously. It’s difficult for me to conceive of his writing the lyrics for one of these songs first and then searching for the appropriate musical setting, or vice versa.”
This is only one point in Harnick’s thoughtful essay which is itself a lesson in the art of lyric writing. Harnick even tells the tale of his collaboration with Martin on a song for a nightclub act for Eddie Fisher when he got out of the Army after the Korean War. It is called “I Can’t Get Used to These Clothes” and the disc includes a demo recording of Martin singing the ditty.
Harnick’s contribution isn’t the only treasure in the book. From the foreword, by none other than Stephen Sondheim, to the final piece on Martin’s later years by San Diego State professor Terry O’Donnell, the book is filled with interesting explanations of the origin of each song and/or recording in the collection and exceptionally well written essays about Martin as a composer, a lyricist, and a vocalist. Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress waxes particularly poetic as he describes the complexities behind Martin’s apparent melodic simplicity.
Horowitz rightly points out that “there is no more demanding form of singing than the close harmonies for which he was known. This informed his own melodic writing which, while always tuneful, assumed that no leap was to difficult and no harmonic clash too misleading.” He also puts his finger on another source of uniqueness in Martin’s makeup: his Southern roots as a native of Birmingham, Alabama. Writes Horowitz: “The Old South imbues many of his songs with a honesyckled wistfulness and his melodies with dying falls reminiscent of Spanish moss.”
The combination of this tempting collection of nearly 30 songs you probably never heard before but which will remain in tucked in a particularly pleasant place in your memory and over 80 pages of text and photos may be just the whetting of an appetite.
Producers Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman have thoughtfully included a guide to further exploration, listing books, radio programming and recordings for further exploration.
And, if you can manage to get to Manhattan or Los Angeles, you might be tempted to visit the Paley Center for Media where you can view a kinescope of the 1958 written-for-television musical Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates for which Martin wrote the score. It was an ice skating musical featuring Peggy King, Dick Button, non-skating Basil Rathbone and starring heart-throb film star and former national figure skating championship competitor Tab Hunter. The song “I Happen to Love You” is included in this recording as sung by Martin. The full television broadcast has been digitized and can be viewed at either Paley Center at 25 West 52nd Street in New York or 465 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. Visit and you may be surprised just how good Hunter is, and you’ll find the entire score a delight.
But, after listening to these 29 songs, the quality of the score, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Hugh Martin Web site