MY KIND OF BROADWAY

July 17, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

When listening to music on the many devices I own, I’m fond of employing the shuffle mode. It’s fun not to know what’s coming next, especially as your personal library will rarely, if ever, betray you. For example, this morning while out walking my dog, I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing “The Blue Room” followed by Frank Sinatra singing “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her.” What these songs have in common, besides being written for failed Broadway shows, is that they were recorded in the 1950s and '60s; a time when the great singers of the day regularly recorded songs from Broadway shows and could care less if the shows from which they came were hits or not. And audiences didn't care either. And it got me thinking about the major difference with songs written for the theatre today as opposed to the ones when artists like Ella and Frank were in their prime during what is now referred to as the Golden Age of musicals.

That period was back when radio (and to some degree television variety shows) were a thing that forcefully fed a beast, making it de rigueur for hit songs to be covered by artists of every stripe. After all, it’s why they were called popular songs. And with so many of the major composers of the day writing for film and theatre, it was no wonder that a song like “Hey There” from the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, would be recorded by nearly every major artist of the mid-to-late 1950s. Sammy Davis Jr., Johnnie Ray, Sam Cooke, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Sarah Vaughn … the list goes on (though oddly Sinatra never recorded it). Songs like “Hey There” also didn’t hurt the box office when audiences went to a musical confident in knowing there was one song they already knew. Rosemary Clooney's recording of it reached #1 on Billboard's charts the year Pajama Game opened.

Which prompts the question that with the recent Dear Evan Hansen a bona fide Broadway smash, if the market still existed that allowed for a singer to record a song like “Waving Through a Window,” would it make its way up the charts as songs once did in the days of old? I can’t say for certain, but it’s pretty safe to assume it would, providing there were singers to put their own stamp on it and make it their own.

Compilation released in 1965 on Frank Sinatra’s own recording label, Reprise.

Which brings me to one of my favorite albums from the Broadway musical’s Golden Age, the 1965 release of Frank Sinatra’s My Kind of Broadway. This was an album Sinatra didn’t record in a studio, but rather was culled from some of his previous albums, featuring songs that originated in Broadway scores. As one example of its eclectic quality, it features nine different arrangers and composers, very different from the way Sinatra would usually craft an album from scratch. I love the diversity of the tunes and the range of stylings, from the mournful slow-to-build rendition of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s title song from their 1949 collaboration Lost in the Stars, to the swing version of Frank Loesser’s classic “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls. This is perhaps the most famous cut on the album, due mostly to the fierce Nelson Riddle arrangement that was used to hilarious comic effect in Mrs. Doubtfire to score Robin Williams' initial transformation, as well as on various TV commercials over the years.

The album also features such hits as the title tune from Hello, Dolly!, which won the 1965 Grammy Award for Jerry Herman as Song of the Year (beating out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's "People" and John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "A Hard Day's Night.") Performed by Louis Armstrong, who recorded the song the month the musical opened on Broadway, led everyone to follow suit and find their own ways of putting the number across. So naturally Sinatra did it. That's what it was like in those days.

Two of the songs on My Kind of Broadway came one Broadway failure in particular: Skyscraper, which opened to mixed reviews in November of 1965, two months after this album came out. That can only mean one thing—that both “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her” and “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong” were slipped to Sinatra by two of his best friends and favorite songwriters, the composer Jimmy Van Heusen and the lyricist Sammy Cahn.

1965’s “Skyscraper,” Julie Harris’s one and only Broadway musical.

Cahn and Van Heusen were the team responsible for some of Sinatra’s biggest hits like “My Kind of Town” (written for the film musical Robin and the Seven Hoods, and from which this album takes its title), as well as “Call Me Irresponsible,” “All the Way,” and “Come Fly With Me” among many others. The two tunes from Skyscraper did not go on to become standards, but I for one think they’re terrific, especially by way of the fine Torrie Zito arrangements produced exclusively for Sinatra (which you can hear repeated in this live performance Sinatra gave on the old TV variety program, The Hollywood Palace).

The one and only Frank Sinatra backed up by Count Basie and his Orchestra (1965).

As an aside, not being familiar with his career, my curiosity got the better of me so I looked up Torrie Zito and was pleased to see that (among other career highlights) he was responsible for the string arrangements on the classic John Lennon album, Imagine. How's that for versatility?

There is only one song on My Kind of Broadway that isn’t from a Broadway show, but from a film musical. And that’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Damsel in Distress. My guess is they needed one more song to round out the recording and figured no one would do the research to figure it out (though Broadway insiders most assuredly figured it out).

Lastly, there is one true anomaly on the album: “Golden Moment,” from the musical Hot September. Never heard of it? Well, there’s a reason for that. It was a 1965 musical version of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play Picnic that never made it to Broadway. It closed out of town in Boston. With music by Kenneth Jacobson and lyrics by Rhoda Roberts, one can only conjecture that there were hopes that Hot September would be a hit and that “Golden Moment” had a shot at becoming a standard. Neither would come to pass, as after Hot September’s pre-mature closing, the team of Jacobson & Roberts sadly never made it to Broadway. Looking up some of the songs from the score, I kind of wish Sinatra had recored the show’s opening number “Another Crummy Day.” I’d like to have heard that one.

One last thought: There's certainly the possibility that with Ben Platt's fame growing steadily that once day there will be a demand for him to record his own My Kind of Broadway. To paraphrase the title of a Broadway song that he might (or might not) record for the album, “There Are Worse Things He Could Do.”

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

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Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."