June 7, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Composer Charles Strouse was born on this date ninety-four years ago. His more than thirty stage musicals, including thirteen for Broadway, contain some of my personal favorite songs written for the theatre, none more so than "Put On a Happy Face" from Bye, Bye Birdie. Too young to have seen the original Broadway show in 1960, I fell in love with the film version three years later at the age of six, especially the “Put On a Happy Face” number as sung by Dick Van Dyke. Plus, it was the theme song for The Hollywood Palace, a 1960s TV variety program I watched religiously. I even go to YouTube now and then to listen to Joe Lipman's orchestral arrangement that opened and closed the show each week. And it was also the theme song for Chuck McCann’s syndicated kid’s show Let’s Have Fun, which was a huge part of my childhood. What can I say? The song still brings me undiluted joy whenever I hear it.
Strouse’s official website boasts that “he has composed scores for five Hollywood films [including Bonnie and Clyde], two orchestral works and an opera. He has been inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame. He is a three–time Tony Award winner, a two–time Emmy Award winner, and his cast recordings have earned him two Grammy Awards. His song “Those Were the Days” launched over 200 episodes of All in the Family and continues to reach new generations of television audiences in syndication. With hundreds of productions licensed annually, his musicals Annie and Bye, Bye Birdie are among the most popular of all time.”
In a 2018 interview with Playbill, Strouse talked about his roots and musical education: "I grew up on the West Side of Manhattan, 78th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. A lot of well-known people came from around there, like Burt Bacharach. We were friends. Everyone would call him Happy. I was Buddy. When I got married, my wife said, 'Forget the Buddy.' So, I became who I really was." Side note: he and his wife, Barbara Siman, have been married for sixty years.
"My first connection with music was through my mother," Strouse told Playbill. “She was a pianist. She played a kind of ragtime piano. That was the first thing I heard. She was a very sad woman. I started tinkering at the piano to amuse her, to make her happy. She liked it, I guess. I had a good ear and took lessons. I went to P.S. 87 and Townsend Harris High School, and when it was time to go to college I went to music school. I was quite young — 15... When I graduated in 1947, I sent some of my music to Tanglewood, and I became a student of Aaron Copland and had my music played there... I knew Lenny Bernstein at Tanglewood, and of course he became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, but he never would play anything of mine. I pursued that career — I wrote a string quartet, a piano concerto — but that career was shadowed by the fact that every day I was playing at auditions and playing rehearsal piano. This started taking my emotional life to a different place. I liked it. I liked the people. I started to enjoy it."
And enjoy it he did, even if there were inevitable downs to go with the ups. For every Bye, Bye Birdie or Annie, there was A Broadway Musical or Dance a Little Closer (two Strouse shows that, sadly, closed on their opening nights). And so what if had his share of flops alongside his hits? Every other major Broadway composer in the 20th century did as well (including Leonard Bernstein).
Case in point was Birdie’s follow-up, All American. Once again re-teaming with lyricist Lee Adams, they brought on board a new librettist, a mutual friend named Mel Brooks, then a TV comedy writer with limited theatre experience, who turned out to be less than ideal (according to most sources, he never finished the show’s second act). An adaptation of a novel titled Professor Fodorski, by Robert Lewis Taylor, All American attempted a satirical look at the immigrant experience from the point of view of a Hungarian professor who comes to America to teach at a small southern college. Opening two years after Birdie’s freshmen success, All American lent credence to the fearsome “sophomore jinx,” closing in less than two months. Its fate was pretty much assured by Howard Taubman in the New York Times, when he wrote: “With a stage full of targets in sight, All American has managed the amazing feat of hitting none.”
Still, All American has some wonderful songs in it, especially the ballad “Once Upon a Time.” Written quickly in Philadelphia to replace a scene that wasn’t working between the show’s two leads (Ray Bolger and Eileen Herlie), Strouse and Adams were thrilled when Tony Bennett decided to record it. It was to be the “A” side on a 45 record, only it didn’t turn out that way. When “Once Upon a Time” got little attention, DJs flipped the record over and the “B” side, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” captured the hearts of listeners. A huge hit, it won the 1962 Grammy for Record of the Year (don’t cry for Strouse and Adams: for every record sold they got the same residual payments as George Cory and Douglass Cross did for “San Francisco”). Eventually, “Once Upon a Time” got recorded by other artists, thus finding its rightful place as a standard.
Two Strouse and Adams musicals followed in the mid-1960s, Golden Boy and It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman. And even if the shows containing them received mixed reviews, the scores were terrific. Luckily, audiences have had a chance to hear them again with full orchestras at City Center’s Encores!, in productions staged in 2002 and 2013, respectively. Golden Boy, which opened in 1964, was based on Clifford Odets’s 1937 boxing melodrama as a vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. Though it ran a year and-a-half, it couldn’t manage to return its full investment. Worse luck hit with Superman in 1966, which failed after four months, though its score remains a personal favorite of mine, as well as many other musical comedy aficionados I’ve encountered over the years (if you don’t know it, just listen to Strouse’s overture, and try not to fall in love with it, as well as its brilliant orchestration by the arranger Eddie Sauter).
In 1970, Strouse and Adams won their second Tonys with Applause. It wasn’t the final show they would write together, but it was their last one that was a hit. A musical version of the 1950 Academy Award winning All About Eve, it ran two years and made an unlikely musical theatre star of Lauren Bacall. It then took seven long years for Strouse to return to Broadway, but when he did, it was one for the record books. Annie, based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, ran for six and-a-half-years, won seven Tony Awards, and has since been revived three times on Broadway and made into three different films. Its signature tune, “Tomorrow” (an unforgettable ear worm), is known to millions the world over.
Although Strouse would never have another smash like Annie again, perhaps he took some solace in the fact that few do. It’s a shame he had a failure in his 1986 musical Rags (with lyrics provided by Stephen Schwartz). A far more dramatic take on the immigrant experience than All American, it contains perhaps the finest music Strouse composed for the theatre. Plagued by an unwieldy and unworkable story, it closed after 4 performances (though, in a weak Broadway season, landed a Tony nomination for Best Musical). A production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut five years ago, even with a seriously rewritten book, did not make the case for reconsideration.
Charles Strouse has written songs for more than sixty years that have influenced not only generations of composers, but nearly anyone with a love for the musical theatre. I’ll close with a great story he tells in his autobiography that hits on that:
“I was lecturing to students at the University of Miami when a young man came up to me afterward and said, ‘When I heard Ann-Margret sing ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’ in the film, I knew then that I wanted to be in the theatre.’”
“Humbled, I responded, ‘You knew you wanted to be a composer?’”
“‘No,’ he replied. ‘I wanted to be Ann-Margret.’”
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, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.