Monday, March 5, 2018

Don't Forget 127th Street

Looking north towards 127th Street from Duffy's Hill on Lexington Avenue between102nd and 103rd Streets. Photo: JH.
Monday, March 5, 2018. Off and on sunny, mildly cold weekend in New York. We had more than 12 hours of rain along with a few hours of snow, none of which stuck thanks to the mild weather.

Last Thursday, JH and I went over to the West 57th Street apartment of Barbara Siman and Charles Strouse, to interview Mr. Strouse, one of the most prolific Broadway musical composers of the last half of the 20th century. He has written more than two dozen shows, with his works still being performed in various theatre companies in the United States.

Charles Strouse (seated) and Lee Adams.
Winner of 7 Tonys, 2 Grammys and various other awards for achievement, theatre-goers know him for his musical scores of Bye Bye Birdie, lyrics by Lee Adams, All-American, book by Mel Brooks, lyrics by Adams; along with Golden Boy, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, Applause, book by Comden and Green, lyrics by Adams; and Annie, lyrics by Martin Charnin, book by Thomas Meehan.

TV watchers are familiar with his “Those Were the Days” theme song for All in the Family. Not to mention films scores such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, but that’s just a handful of an stunning  CV including several musical revues (with lyrics also written with Lee Adams).

Mr. Strouse is going to celebrate his 90th birthday this coming June 7th. As you might surmise, he’s been working steadily (non-stop) composing for the last 75 of those 90 years! And I could have made a much longer list of his accomplishments (and achievements) in his field.

Broadway musicals have captured my interest and imagination since I was a kid. I learned to play the piano back then, and I loved to sing (and still give special performances singing at the keyboard, accompanying myself as well as providing audience acclaim) along with my dogs who stay close by in anticipation of a reward in the form of treats when I am finished concertizing.

There was even a very brief period in my mid-20s when I pursued a career as a performer. I attended the Neighborhood Playhouse as well as took musical audition classes with the great David Craig who taught a class on  how to perform a lyric, and vocal lessons from John Mace. Aside from my different professional path in life, those men were the two greatest “teachers” I have had. Besides imparting their skills and knowledge, they also imparted a professional wisdom that has stayed with me.
Charles Strouse in conversation and consternation.
This interview came about when Ellen Easton, a mutual friend of mine and Charles Strouse, had invited me to join her for an evening with the composer at Upstairs at Studio 54. I was unable to make it regrettably, because that same night was the Memorial cabaret for Barbara Carroll. Knowing I was disappointed that I couldn’t see Charles Strouse perform his material, Ellen asked if I’d like to meet him to interview.

And so it was. The Strouses live in a very spacious, comfortable apartment on the far western end of 57th Street, and just steps, in some cases, from the Broadway theatre district. JH was there with his trusty Canon, as well as Ms. Easton, and Helene Davis, his publicist, and Mrs. Strouse, Barbara Siman. We met in his office with its Bechstein upright and several sheafs of handwritten music on its shelf over the piano.
A show in the works.
It was a homey atmosphere and the composer was seated with his back to the piano (he could easily swing around when needed to plunk out a few notes to explain), I couldn’t help asking the obvious: how does a composer work with a lyricist? Which comes first, or do they come together at the piano? It’s been asked a million times  because the finished product can seem like extrasensory perception. It’s not, although maybe it’s close.

Charles Strouse as a child growing up in New York, was what today we’d call a child prodigy. He started playing on the keyboard when he was no more than five. His mother and father saw that the kid had ability and arranged for him to have piano lessons. He took to it so naturally that by the time he was eleven or twelve he knew his future would be as a musician. He acknowledged that his mother supported his choices and stood over them like a supervisor if he got too distracted from his music.

A brainy kid, he graduated from high school at 15, and his parents enrolled him in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Eastman was his choice because he didn’t want to stray far from home and hearth. He figured it couldn’t be more than an hour away by car. It wasn’t until he had to go there that he discovered it was only five and a half hours away.
A wall in Charles study is decorated with posters from some of the musicals and movies (over 30 and 9 respectively) he wrote the scores for.
Some of Charles' awards and accolades.
At 15, he was the youngest student at Eastman although he soon fell into the life and made friendships, some of which he’s kept up through life. He studied the classics and anticipated writing symphonies and concertos. When he finished Eastman – the youngest in his class, he was only 18 – he came back to Manhattan and his mother and father’s house.

His father, who was in the tobacco business, was quick to remind the boy that concerto or no concerto, he had to start earning a living with his training. Among his ventures, he started accompanying actors and actresses on the piano at their musical auditions. He got a lot of work, saw a lot of talent (“including Barbra Streisand who doesn’t remember it…”), and began to get the hang of the language of Broadway, the stage, the lingo. He was soon being exposed to his future.

Strouse met Lee Adams when they were two young men on Broadway plying their ideas. Adams was the writer. It was set the late '50s and the establishment of Rock ‘N Roll and Elvis as the King, who was at the time being drafted in the midst of his huge career. Conrad Birdie was basically a send up of the “new” generation’s tastes. And it was a big hit, and funny. Then Hollywood bought it. Ann-Margret was going to be the (new) star.
Charles playing a verse from "Don't Forget 127th Street" written for Sammy Davis Jr. for Golden Boy.
The producer needed a title song for her to sing. Strouse and Adams went out to Hollywood. They were paid “a lot of money” just to write the song (not to mention a lot more money for the screen rights). The song had to have the name “Birdie” in it.

They were out in Hollywood enjoying their success, and in the meantime they were also stumped for a song. Every time they ran into the film’s producer, he’s say, “how’s the song coming?” Oh fine, just fine. Meanwhile, stumped.

Finally one day Strouse and Adams were at the piano/by the piano stumped until Charles plunked out a few basic notes for BYE BYE B-I-R-D-I-E , then vamped into a melody with Adams supplying the words. And they had a song, which became a hit, like Ann Margret.
And that’s one of the ways it worked (when it did) for the two men that spelled box office on Broadway. After a very good run, Lee Adams retired in the 1980s. Charles Strouse continued, collaborating with Martin Charnin on the musical “Annie.”

I’ll make a calculated guess that  “Annie” has become the biggest hit in Charles Strouse’s portfolio of Broadway musicals, for the simple reason that it’s a timeless, classic story with songs that catch all the emotional moments of a life of a child, and it is still ripe for revival after revival.

Meanwhile, from what I could calculate, seeing all of the raw sheet music on Charles Strouse’s Bechstein Thursday afternoon, he’s still working on his next assignment. Out there in popular music, two decades later, Jay-Z named his third album, Vol 2 Hard Knock Life with a pitch modified sample of the song (ghetto album) from “Annie.”
Little Dave with Barbara Siman Strouse and Charles Strouse.

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