REVIEW: Songs In The Key Of Black | Slide, Sydney
Lucy Maunder’s Songs In The Key Of Black is living proof you can have all the right ingredients, superlative talent in every corner, a note-perfect delivery (vocally and in every other sense) and still not quite sparkle.
What this show lacks is a sense of spontaneity. So much so, I was almost hankering for a frog-in-the-throat falter; a lapse of memory; something. Not because I wanted to see anyone fail, but because what was missing was a real connection with the audience.
It was never made. I’m not saying the people at Slide, for Lucy’s one-night-only presentation of her cabaret, left empty-handed, or empty-hearted. After all, Maunder is a fine singer, even if her still-young voice is yet to acquire the kind of really characterful timbre which would enable you to identify it blindfolded. It should be said she’s a good, if not great actor, too; that aspect of her performance is every bit as immaculate as the vocal.
Neil Gooding was directing and ensured everything was nuanced and just so. Daniel Edmonds proved a sensational musical director. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Nick Christo’s script and I think this was the seed sown that bore the flawless fruit of which I’ve spoken. It was all a little too slick. I wanted it to be personal. And it wasn’t.
That said, the problem isn’t necessarily the show, but it’s fit with this reasonably intimate venue. I don’t know if it was the intention when conceived and developed, but while I can see the production going down a treat in a more ‘theatrical’ context, it’s too impersonal for an upmarket, quite sumptuously-appointed, wining, dining nightspot. Who’s to blame? Maybe noone. As Cole would’ve said, it was just one of those things.
But this show isn’t about Cole, but Irving, the man of a thousand songs (well, 850; not bad for a dirt-poor Russian immigrant). Again, however, I would’ve liked it to be a little more about Lucy, somehow, too; again, that would’ve served to reach out and touch somebody.
Of course, if it was Irving you came to hear, as much as Lucy, you weren’t disappointed, as she packed the numbers in about as densely as the composer himself. So much so, I’m beside myself struggling to remember all the numbers she performed. But some stood out. What’ll I Do has never been one of my favourite Berlin songs. And now I know why. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it performed nearly so well. Typically, it’s with faintly feigned pathos; insincerity; half-hearted banality. It’s too often, in my recollection, a ‘backstop’ song; serially abused, if not murdered. (There are very notable exceptions, of course, and they are particularly numerous, whether one thinks about Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, Linda Ronstadt, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra or Bea Arthur, so I’m not sure why I harbour this adverse impression. One of the most intriguing renditions is by Kiwi soprano, Frances Alda, recorded June 12, 1924, red-hot on the heels of its composition the previous year.) But Maunder turns the tables on all that, milking every skerrick of devastation the lyric reflects. She actually sounds as if she’s teetering, about to plunge off the deep end, having had her heart irrevocably split asunder. It’s a moment of creative genius which chimes with the moments in which Berlin must’ve written it. And you thought the romance that was so divine was gone, for good.
Prefacing this were, for example, Blue Skies, written just a few years after What’ll I Do. Ironically, it was an 11th-hour addition to a Rodgers and Hart musical. With composers of that ilk, you’d think said musical (Betsy) would be a bulletproof, guaranteed cert success, but it flopped and folded after only 39 performances. The song, however, as will be apparent, lived on. It was predestined, from the first: on Betsy‘s opening night, the audience, despite a less than even lukewarm reception for the musical in its entirety, enthused so much for Blue Skies, leading lady Belle Baker was more-or-less compelled to deliver no less than 24 encores. Not to dwell on this episode (lest I be mistaken for some mastermind nerd, obsessed with the arcane detail of musical theatre history), but whether due to sheer exhaustion, sudden-onset dementia or whatever, Baker forgot the lyrics the last time round. Berlin, seated in the front, piped-up to fill the breach. Don’t you wish you could’ve been a fly on the wall? Yep, Blue Skies shone on the song from, literally, day one of its public exposure.
Maunder and Edmonds made a seamless segue into Let’s Face The Music And Dance; fitting, since Maunder (thanks, primarily, to having a renowned musical theatre and opera director for a father) cut her milk-teeth on Fred Astaire (Berlin’s favourite singer), rather the The Flintstones. Lucy only but adds to the inherent, heartbeat-skipping, tear-jerking sadness of the song. One can hardly help but muse it could almost only have been written by a Russian: who else could find a sunbeam in the darkest of rooms? And hearing it enables one to revisit the operatic scene in the 1936 film Follow The Fleet for which it was written, in which down-on-his-luck Fred rescues Ginger from plunging into the depths, serenading her with “there may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance”. For all the hyperreal Hollywood glamour that typified the period, Berlin sallied forth with this veritable ode to the underclass, which identified and articulated their anguish, uplifting their spirits. For all his prodigy, it was something Cole couldn’t do, for he didn’t emerge from the underclass. But Berlin, in singing their song, was singing his own.
On a much lighter, brighter note, the foxtrot, I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket, also from RKO’s Follow The Fleet, tracks the supposed transformation of a cad (“I’m a roaming Romeo, my Juliets have been many”).
Maunder and Edmonds have taken the art of medley to new heights, no moreso evident than in their Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil, Top Hat (White Tie And Tails), Cheek To Cheek bracket. Pack Up Your Sins is one of Berlin’s so-called counterpoint songs. Typically, this meant a given song would seem to interpolate two tunes, one fast and one slow, but this one is exceptional in that there’s the impression of two quickies. It’s just one of the ways in which the composer good-naturedly teased, tormented and toyed with us. It was one of the earliest featured songs in Irving’s Music Box Revue.
The other two songs in this compilation hardly need any introduction, being among Berlin’s best-loved and most famous. Both tunes hail from 1935′s Top Hat, comedic cinema of the first and finest order, featuring Fred and Ginger’s best-known work together and unforgettable character actors in supporting roles. Top Hat (the song) is Berlin at his bounciest and most upbeat, with tongue firmly in cheek, especially when he dares to write “I just got an invitation through the mails”, to sit with the second line of his introduction: “Your presence requested this evening; it’s formal, top hat, white tie and tails.” And is there any more perfect line in the Great American Songbook than: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak”?
Remember touches all of us who’ve ever forgotten to remember, or have been exposed to the ignominy of having someone else forget to remember, to forget us not. In LM’s hands, we’re touched, deeply, all over again.
What’ll I Do came next, sliding into All Alone, which shows Edmonds and Maunder really know their game as, besides sitting cheek-to-cheek musically, they do lyrically and emotively as well. All Alone was one of a number of songs inspired by the death of Berlin’s mother. It’s sentimental, in the best possible way.
Impeccably, All By Myself followed. It goes all the way back to a 1921 revue, but was revived many years later for the film Blue Skies, as well as being performed by Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Lyrically, it’s unrelentingly black and brooding and one wonders if Berlin wasn’t seriously afflicted with depression. Or was he merely parodying our blue, lovelorn, self-pitying moments? Playing us, or playing with us, yet again. After all, the tune is brassy. Perhaps it’s another case of counterpoint. Whatever the case, Edmonds and Maunder again show profound sensitivity and acute sensibility, jumping to Puttin’ On The Ritz, the title of which references slang of the era (late ’20s), referring to the desire to dress fashionably. (It puts me in mind of the people of Sydney’s north shore, who don’t get out much, dressing to the nines for opening night of the English National Ballet, at Chatswood’s new, imperious Concourse, putting on airs and graces divested the moment a plate of canapés emerges afterwards.)
Berlin, of course, toys with us in a novel way with this song, wit its unprecedented rhythmic complexity and highly irregular and unusual stresses. Long before the predictable white gentrification evident on Park Avenue was assimilated into it, the original lyric had something of the quality of social documentary, observing flashy blacks parading, ritualistically, up and down Lennox Avenue, Harlem. That Maunder can carry the inherent difficulties and challenges of this show tune off as effortlessly as she can the heartrending (or heartbreaking) ballads is another feather in her cap.
After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It) seems prescient of the pinnacle of the indiscriminate era of overconsumption in which we live: ‘If I gave you the moon, you’d grow tired of it soon.” This proved yet another example of Maunder’s vocal and theatrical versatility: she has immense, endearing, comprehensive capacity to shift the mood and dynamics, while remaining utterly consistent in the clarity and quality of her delivery; she has enviable precision. So much so, her vocal instrument gives the overwhelming impression its utterly failsafe. And this is far from damnation by faint praise. Her diction is superb; phrasing, deeply thoughtful. The last, moreover, enables the most moving interpretations of lyrics, which leave plenty of room to spare for the melodies to work their magic, too.
Mister Monotony is the trademark Berlin wit at work again, with its dull, droning tune the ideal vehicle for “playing on his slide trombone, in a certain monotone”. Maunder can pull this off, no problem, also, seemingly undaunted by competing, in our memories with Judy Garland in Easter Parade. That’s something.
Everybody Step is only just postwar, written in ’46 for Blue Skies, but it’s still a song that can let you right out of your seat; like it says, in unapologetic self-parody, the tune “could be sweeter, but then the meter was written ‘specially for your feet”.
How Deep Is The Ocean? was a deeply personal song for Berlin, written at a time when he was almost certainly experiencing a dark night of the soul (for one thing, his three-year-old son had died only a few years earlier) and, as such, remains one of his most poignant and indelible contributions to popular music. It was first heard (incredibly, only in the background) in The Life Of Jimmy Dolan, a 1932 film about a legendary boxer who accidentally kills a man at a party. Some party. Sounds like the kind Aussie footballers, of whatever code, enjoy. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra played it and Jack Fulton sang it. Fulton is, tragically, long forgotten, but had a transporting voice that might have little place in the modern idiom, but which is not merely nostalgic, but almost nostalgia itself. The song itself is one in which, wittingly or unwittingly, Berlin wears his heritage on his sleeve, as there could be no more complete example of the definitive Yiddish predilection for answering a question with a question. “How can I tell you hat is in m heart? How can I measure each and every part?” There may never have been a more eloquent or articulate exposition, in words, of the inexpressible, inestimable, amorphous shape and dimensionality of love. Mauder doesn’t miss the opportunity to make it a standout of her repertoire, as well. Flawless.
The Maunder team has been thorough-going and perspicacious to follow How Deep with Yiddisha Nightingale, which may or may not have been written about and in homage to Marysia Eisenstadt, one of the best-loved musical icons of the Warsaw ghetto, who surely would’ve become world-renowned, if not for the fact she was unceremoniously murdered by the Nazis. It was never a hit, despite Berlin generalising the idea, lyrically, so that it reads as a man worshipping the very voice of the woman he loves. An absolute treasure; a golden needle in a haystack of brilliant songs and good on Maunder for sussing it out.
On a much happier note, Steppin’ Out (With My Baby), from the incomparably fabulous and celebrated Easter Parade, is all about the self-assured lover (albeit nagged and dogged by the merest hint of habitual, superstitious self-doubt), confident, or at least high-hoping, he or she’s about to get lucky. It captures the elation one feels in such circumstances, with its snappy tune and matching words, as in the alternate chorus: “Steppin’ out with my honey, can’t be bad, to feel so good, never felt quite so sunny and I keep on knockin’ wood.” Maunder and Edmonds knock it out a treat.
Say It Isn’t So is proof positive Berlin could never have had a harsher critic than himself. He threw this song away, believing he was all washed-up as a songwriter. It was 1932. At the time, he was also convinced How Deep Is The Ocean was sub-standard and cast it aside. Oi weh! It was Rudy Vallee who, at the behest of Berlin’s loyal, persevering business partner Max Winslow (who passed it on while Irving was out of town), rescued the former from oblivion. Vallee was then he nation’s number one crooner and he invested his heart in it, given the lyric was what he was living, through divorce: “Everyone is saying you don’t love me; say it isn’t so.” Maunder and Edmonds tenderise it as much, if not more.
We didn’t get Marie From Sunny Italy, Berlin’s first-ever published song from 1907, but we did get his first major international hit from 1911: Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The song itself doesn’t embody or particularly exemplify the true characteristics of ragtime, but it certainly zeroes in on the African-American (re)invention of playing standards in frenetic time. It’s a tribute to this feat of genius and the attempt at mimicking the vernacular is none too clumsy: “They can play a bugle call like you never heard before, so natural that you want to go to war; that’s just the bestest band what am, honey lamb!” It’s difficult to pinpoint just how or why it took on so contagiously, but it’s believed to have started with its popularity around the windy city thanks, ostensibly, to the female baritone, vaudevillian Emma Carus. Jolson picked it up and started spreading the news in New York and the rest is musical history.
I Love A Piano, for mine, has Liza’s inimitable stamp all over it, but if Maunder was undeterred by following Garland, Liza, I s’pose was never going to be seen as a threat, either. She is, but not a fatal one: Lucy holds her own with this number as well. A reprise of Cheek To Cheek made for a indulgently sublime, or sublimely indulgent, encore.
Songs In The Key Of Black? Another fascinating story I can’t resist. Virtually all Berlin’s compositions were in the key of F-sharp. You see, young Irving dropped-out of school in his early teens and taught himself to play the piano while working as a singing waiter, from 1904 to 1907. Playing in F-sharp allowed him to stay on the black keys. It was a good (and not uncommon) strategy for an untrained musician: it’s a damn sight easier to avoid bum notes if you only have to hit the elevated, widely- spaced black keys. Much later in life, with characteristic wit and candour, he said: “The black keys are right there, under your fingers; the key of C is for people who study music.”
In the end, while this is a showcase for the swelling talent that is Maunder, generously buoyed by the others herein named, Berlin is the star and, when you think about it, it doesn’t take much memory-jogging to be reminded of his greatness. Inasmuch, Maunder has done Berlin proud and us a great service. The simpatico between Maunder and her musical director (a virtuosic pianist, to boot) is a marriage made in heaven, so let’s hope it lasts longer than most.
Songs In The Key Of Black is a love letter. To Irving, from Lucy.
The details: Songs In The Key Of Black played for one night only on June 4 at Slide in Darlinghurst.