10 March 2014

By Jove, I think they've got something: A Review of HIGGINS IN HARLEM at POP

Photo credit: Rich Wagner
     In Playhouse on Park's world premiere production of Lawrence Thelen's Higgins in Harlem, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion heads to the Apollo Theatre, outside of which Higgins (Kevyn Morrow) meets Eliza (Geri-Nikole Love) and the fireworks begin -- even in the midst of a downpour.
     It's hard to create an adaptation that is both faithful to its original yet inspired and individual enough to allow us to experience the force of the concept anew.  Writer/Director Thelen, with the help of a very strong cast, pulls it off nicely. 
     Set during the Harlem Renaissance, the play follows the familiar bet by Higgins and Pickering (Bob Johnson) to see if, in just a few short months, the professor can make the incomprehensible flower girl pass for an university-educated African princess. The insults and idioms fly, and, amidst hurt feelings and hard work, so do the sparks.  Ms. Love and Mr. Morrow show the many, and varied shades, of a man obsessed with his student's progress and a woman who realizes she's nothing but a subject.
     The rest of the cast match the leads, but special mention must be made of Mrs. Higgins (Janelle Robinson) who gives the production its moral center, by voicing -- with aplomb and humor -- the things everyone in the audience wants to say to her son.
     The set, lights, and costumes are simple but smartly elegant (although the choreographed set changes seem a bit more fuss than needed).
      In short, I liked this production very much and think it has legs (i.e., I think other companies and groups will want to mount their own productions, including, I hope, high schools and colleges).  In the meantime, check this one out.  The bar has been set high. 

      I do have one suggestion for the playwright/director: In the climactic scene, when Higgins so infuriates Eliza that she stands up to him (and he exclaims, in essence, "Finally!"), I need it to be a bigger things for both. characters  Eliza's hardly been a retiring wallflower before, and Higgins has hardly held back his disdain, so why's this a revelation?  My two cents.

04 March 2014

“Elvis Bows, Bing Just Nods”: High and Low Culture in Fancy Meeting You Here

“Elvis Bows, Bing Just Nods”:
High and Low Culture in Fancy Meeting You Here

Gilbert L. Gigliotti
Central Connecticut State University

     On Fancy Meting You Here, his 1958 duet album with Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby offers a trenchant critique of the coarsening of American culture.  From Crosby’s own liner notes to many of the special lyrics written by Sammy Cahn and Ira Gershwin, among others, the musical travelogue offers listeners a crash course in late-fifties pop culture while exposing the incipient fissure between young and old that would become the “generation gap” the following decade.
    The RCA-Victor album (LSP-1854), a collection of thirteen geographically-themed songs, including “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Hindustan,” “You Came A Long Way from St Louis,” “Isle of Capri,” and “Calcutta,” was recorded during three sessions on July 28th, August 7th and 11th, 1958.  It was based, according to the record jacket, upon an idea by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen[1], and serves as a de facto sequel to Frank Sinatra’s best selling album Come Fly with Me,[2] released by Capitol Records in February of that same year, its title track also written by Cahn and Van Heusen, and also arranged and conducted by Billy May, the former trumpeter and arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller (Rice; Whitburn 282). 
      As on the Sinatra album, May’s arrangements on Fancy Meeting You Here are sonically rich and very witty, all the while taking full advantage of the possibilities of stereophonic recording technology.  As jazz saxophonist Buddy Collette describes May’s work with Sinatra during the same period:
[He] would try things.  He might put in little songs, start a
little melody and work that way through the whole chorus, and
Frank would like that because it was different.  Billy May was
very inventive…he’d be putting the song into the background

and voicing it, which would work against the chords…(Granata 135).
May’s last minute arranging was infamous, while, at the same time, being well recognized for his fresh orchestrations, or, as drummer Alvin Stoller phrased it: “Billy wrote with meat” (Granata 135).  Indeed, May’s “meaty” presence, both musical and physical, is hard to ignore on almost all of his recordings.  On Fancy Meeting You Here, in fact, Cahn especially mentions him in the final cut of Side I, “Love Won’t Let You Get Away,” when, commenting about the many songs that await listeners on Side Two, Bing and Rosie sing:

Rosie:  Here comes another side

Here we go for that tourist ride

Bing:   Lots of places we haven’t tried

Seems the world’s as wide as Billy May!
In short, May’s remarkable size and talent make listeners marvel even at what should be quite obvious (the mass of Earth itself), just as his arrangements make such standards as “Hindustan” (1918), “It Happened in Monterey” (1930), and “Isle of Capri” (1934) seem as fresh as the year they were composed.

      Not surprisingly, given both the previous pairing of Crosby and Clooney in the 1954 movie hit White Christmas and, since Rosie was a favorite singing partner of Bing because “their vocal range and esprit were a perfect match” (Giddins 513), the singers’ performances consistently equal May’s arrangements in wit, warmth, and exuberance.[3]  Bing, after all, as Gary Giddins writes in his landmark biography A Pocketful of Dreams, was “never more honestly or affably himself than in duets,” a format he used “more frequently than anyone else – on records, radio, and television” (Giddins 513).  And, as Giddins further describes it, Bing preferred duets because the format presented him with:

                        …a challenge, like golf, with a  modified degree of competition.

                        He was as generous to other singers as to fellow actors, and his

supreme confidence relaxed and inspired them.  The laughter in

a Crosby duet was never scripted, while the scripted material

often sounds improvised; it is generally impossible to tell how

much was planned. (513)

      The Crosby/Clooney duets on Fancy Meeting you Here fit this description perfectly.  On “Isle of Capri,” for example, Rosie’s reading of “that Capri isle was a real ringer-dinger” sparks an audible giggle from Bing.  Similarly, both in the opening of “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,” when Bings suggests that someone knit Brigitte Bardot a “hug-me-tight” so she won’t “catch her death of a cold” and, in “Calcutta,” when he refers to a snake as a “Hope double,” his line readings tickle Rosie not a bit.

      Of course, another explanation for the spontaneity of Clooney’s reactions could be that Bing’s script did not read exactly as Rosie’s did, since, from early in his radio career Crosby was well known for altering his lines specifically to surprise his guests and interlocutors (Giddins 411).  The “Hope double, y’know,” line seems especially tossed off, for example. 

      Such verbal playfulness is also a hallmark of Sammy Cahn’s “special lyrics,” a forte of his songwriting career.  For Cahn, perhaps best known as the songwriter “who put more words into Frank Sinatra’s mouth than any other man”(Cahn 129), also was well known throughout the entertainment industry for his “special material:” lyrics written to the tunes of popular standards specifically for different events across the musical, personal, and political spectrum.[4]  Cahn’s occasional lyrics were in high demand due to his ability to reflect the personalities and interests of the individual performers who would sing his words – not to mention his ability to include a remarkable number of “inside jokes,” as well.  Within the songs of Fancy Meeting You Here, for example, we hear mention of Crosby’s being a stockholder in the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rosie’s attraction to Marlon Brando, (“How About You?”), Bing’s earlier incarnation as a crooner (“Brazil”),[5] and how absolutely everyone eats at “Dino’s,” Dean Martin’s restaurant “back on the strip in L.A.”(“Isle of Capri”).

      More intriguing, however, to this listener, is how the album uses Crosby’s well-wrought persona to reflect what can now be identified as the developing split between the Browkavian “greatest generation” and their offspring, the baby boomers.  That persona, in turn, mirrors two significant aspects of Bing’s background: the classical education Crosby received from the Jesuits in high school and college and his lifelong love of language and wordplay.

      Crosby benefited from being “the only major singer in American popular music to enjoy the virtues of a classical education,” because his education, according to Giddins:

            …grounded his values and expectations, reinforc[ed] his

confidence, and buffered him from his own ambition.  [For]

as faithful as he was to show business, his demeanor was

marked by a serenity that suggested an appealing indifference.

He had something going for him that could not be touched by

Hollywood envy and mendacity…The Jesuits trained him to

weigh the rewards of this world versus those of the next and to

keep his own counsel (56-57)
     Indeed, at least two songs from Fancy Meeting You Here make much of Bing’s long-standing stardom and success and his self-deprecating attitude toward it, “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” and “I Can’t Get Started.”

      In the opening recitative of “St. Louis,” [originally written in 19??,] Rosie comments on Bing’s frequent press, his royal treatment, and even his sex symbol status, all of which Crosby blithely, and quite believably, dismisses as wrongheaded and silly:

                        Rosie:  Each of your wisecracks the columns have quoted.

                        Bing:   Yes, it’s terribly amusing, quite flattering, really,

but my press agent wrote it.

                        Rosie:  You breakfast with Bardot

                        Bing:   Somebody should knit her a hug-me-tight

(she’s gonna catch her death of a cold.)

                        Rosie:  You’re wined and you’re dined like the monarchs of old.

                        Bing:   These people fall all over you…

                        Rosie:                                                     Don’t they?

                        Bing:   Oh, it must be a mess.

                        Rosie:  You Casanova you…

     Bing has it all, but he is grounded enough to know not to take it seriously and, moreover, one’s health should always win out over fashion (no matter how attractive the look!).

      Likewise, in the new Ira Gershwin lyrics to “I Can’t Get Started”[6] even as Bing declares how much power he wields in the world (by comparing himself to the most recent musical icon), there is an inescapably self-effacing quality that shines through his performance of the lyric:

Good grief, I’m not exactly a clod.

When Elvis Presley bows I just nod…
      Bing’s credibility here rests on his more than three decades of stardom in recording, radio, and film,[7] without his having forfeited the “well-entrenched image of the ‘American Everyman’” living a life of decency and decorum (Brackett 61).  The Jesuits, it would seem, had trained him well.[8]
     As a good student of the Jesuits, Crosby viewed his position at the top of the entertainment world as a uniquely privileged and powerful pulpit – even as he gently played off the priestly image – in support of “scholastic progressiveness” and “liberal benevolence” (Giddins 55, 558).  For example, the title of an article in the February 1938 issue of Down Beat, which recounts many of Crosby’s good deeds towards his friends in show business, captures these twin concerns: “Bing Crosby (Dr. of Square Shooting) Known as Squarest Man in Hollywood” (Giddins 456).  

      In 1958, Crosby was perhaps still the squarest man in Hollywood, but on Fancy Meeting You Here, the juxtaposition of Bing, “The Old Groaner,” and “Elvis the Pelvis” now underscores the cultural divide between the singer and a younger generation in many ways in need of redemption.  For his message on the album’s back cover, (accompanied by a world map with international locations pedagogically keyed to the album’s playlist), depicts the record buying public, i.e., “the cats closeted in the listening cubicles,” as decidedly young, libidinous, and only semi-literate.  He even includes the recurrent lament that the kids “these days” just don’t read anymore, so anything that gets them reading – even liner notes! – is “eminently desirable.”  The singer, meanwhile, confesses to visiting these same record stores only to buy “something atonal by Hindemith, something sassy by Schoenberg, or something with a beat by Bartok,” intimating through those familiar adjectives that much of the American popular music usually described in such language interests him not.

      Indeed, in response to such cultural trends, he admits the travelogue concept of Fancy Meeting You Here could be quite “salutary” for American record buyers who, when they are not “wrapped up in the reading matter featured on the album jackets,” are “wrapped up in one another” in the listening booths.  As he instructively continues:

            With the accompanying map some geography could be

            absorbed.  A careful selection of songs could reveal the

mores of the places visited, the transportation facilities

available, the mean climate, etc.[9]

Long before the term was invented, Crosby here is promoting the “teachable moment.”
     The singer himself, however, immediately discounts such “educational entertainment” as sounding “pretty stuffy” and proceeds to highlight a variety of factors (Rosie’s voice and humor; new lyrics by Cahn, Gershwin, and Bob Russell; and even brand new songs) that prevent the record from turning, in Bing-speak, into “a complete cruller.” Still, at notes’ conclusion, his schoolmasterish voice returns, invoking, as it were, Horace’s admonition in the Ars Poetica that good literature should both please and instruct (Epistles II.iii.333-334):

…remember—study the map while listening.  It’s very engrossing.
      Comically portrayed or not, Bing’s didacticism seems obvious throughout the album, as the singers take aim at many fads.  Crosby and Clooney’s updated rendition of “It Happened in Monterey,” for instance, lampoons the annoyingly repetitive cha-cha beat and its eponymous dance craze and pre-dates the more famous Sam Cooke parody “Everybody Likes to Cha-Cha,” which went to #31 in 1959 (Pareles and Romanowski 119).  After briefly running through the standard chorus and verse, they sing:

That was the way they used to play,

But here’s the version you’ll hear today:

They cha-cha-cha’d in Monterey/ A long time ago

They cha-cha-cha’d in Monterey/ In old Mexico

     The song, in short, asks the musical question, even punctuated with a comical trombone burp at its conclusion: how can anyone not be heartbroken at such a rendering? 

      Similarly, that the tourist couple is driven off “The Isle of Capri” not by fate or the fear of commitment but by the ubiquity of stale mandolin arrangements and bad pasta dishes cannot but be seen as pessimistic harbingers of the future of pop culture.[10]  The rhyming of “Capri” and “misAPPREhension” is quite telling, after all.

      But it is not simply the sorry state of contemporary music that is problematic in the corrupted rendering of “It Happened in Monterey,” it is also the literary decline reflected in the dumbed-down lyrics.  For Crosby was well known from his youth for his playfulness with language, and he fostered his linguistic fun on radio and in film.  As Giddins writes:

            His way with words, not just his singing and whistling,

helped define Bing’s personality…He rolled large words

on his tongue, trilled rs, fiddled with malapropisms and

spoonerisms, and mimicked the lower, upper, and outcast

classes, exemplified in minstrel badinage or highfalutin rhetoric.  (63)

Bing performs thus in his liner notes:

And then to make it as gilt-edged as a sheaf of municipals,

[producer Simon Rady] dropped the whole project into the

ample lap of that Falstaff of the arrangers, that Rabelais of the

rolling bass – “The Merry Maestro,” Billy May.

      As a singer, language was his primary medium, and what was happening to lyrics at the hands of rock-and-roll had to be disheartening.  The literate lyrics of Tin Pan Alley writers were under assault and demanded worthy defenders, and he and his collaborators here answer the clarion call.

      In 1958, there was no doubt who this company of artists thought would win out. Indeed, Fancy Meeting You Here concludes on a decidedly confident note when Crosby declares to both Clooney and the public:

My little chickadee,

You may say that you’re through with me

You’ll have no more to do with me

You’re all through with me and good day

But you’ll find that love won’t let you get away
Record buyers may think their relationship with Bing is over, but, he assures them, it is not.

      More than forty years later, however, a striking allusion to Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovotore, in “On a Slow Boat to China” perhaps rings truer.  When, in response to Rosie’s line about the crowd of suitors she will leave “weeping on a faraway shore,” Bing exclaims “Somebody get me an anvil!”  The listener senses that the hammer Bing figuratively wields in the song is grandly operatic indeed, both a musical instrument and a weapon of the gods.  As history tells us, this powerful weapon that Crosby had brandished for decades was to be his only a short time longer.  For while Bing still may have been treated “like the monarchs of old,” Elvis was now the King.

Works Cited

Bennett, Charles and John Rolfe, eds.  Horace: Complete Works.  Boston: Allyn and

Bacon, 1962.

Brackett, David.  Interpreting Popular Music.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


Cahn, Sammy.  I Should Care: The Sammy Cahn Story.  New York: Arbor House, 1974.

Crosby, Bing.  “Liner Notes.”  Fancy Meeting You Here.  LSP-1854.  RCA, 1958.

Giddins, Gary.  Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams The Early Years 1903-1940.

Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2001.

Granata, Charles L.  Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording.

Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1999.

Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing.  The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music.

London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, eds.  The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock

and Roll.  New York: Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.

Rice, Robert W.  “Rosemary Clooney.”  Clap Your Hands Here! Comes Rosie/Fancy

Meeting You Here.  TARCD-1060.  Taragon Records, 2000.

Ulanov, Barry.  The Incredible Crosby.  New York: Whittlesey House, 1948.

Whitburn, Joel.  The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums.  New York: Billboard Books,


[1] Van Heusen, first with lyricist Johnny Burke and then with Sammy Cahn, would compose for 18 of Crosby’s films (Hardy and Laing 180).
[2] Come Fly with Me (Capitol W-920), released on 3 February 1958, stayed on the Billboard charts for 50 weeks and was the top selling album for five (Whitburn 282).  That album marked Sinatra’s first collaboration with May as well as the first time that Cahn and Van Heusen composed “special framing tracks (the title song as opener and a closing number)” (Mustazza 174), a feature that the Crosby/Clooney album shares  in “Fancy Meeting You Here” and “Love Won’t Let You Get Away”.
[3] Clooney would join both Crosby and Sinatra on the 13 October 1957 CBS television special, “The Edsel Show,” which introduced the brand new car to American consumers.
[4] Cahn, for example, frequently wrote for “Friars’ Club” events, the political campaigns of Jack Kennedy and Spiro Agnew, and the celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, etc. of any number of American celebrities (Cahn 145, 260).
[5] As Gary Giddins points out in his landmark biography, A Pocketful of Dreams, the crooner label was something that Bing had long sought to distant himself from due to its association with “small-voiced wimps” (284).
[6] The song originally was written with Vernon Duke in 1935 and first performed in Broadway’s The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936-1937.
[7] Due to his success on the record charts, Crosby has been rated “the most popular recording artist during the period 1890-1954” (Brackett 35).
[8] Bing’s credibility is linked directly to his approach to singing which is “disarmingly, almost nakedly, artless yet so artful that he never shows his hand, never shows off his phrasing or his easy way of rushing or retarding a phrase, never does any of the things singers do to show you how hard they are working” (Giddins 512)
 [9] This statement rings especially comical when compared with the description of composer Van Heusen’s great relief in reading the script of The Road to Zanzibar, the sequel to The Road to Singapore, that “the story was in the Singapore groove, [and] that no extensive knowledge of Zanzibar, its customs, climate or people was called for” (Ulanov 174).
[10] Not all the references to popular culture are negative.  On Cahn’s personalized version of Burton Lane and Ralph Freed’s “How about You?,” along with the aforementioned Brando reference, Rosie sings of having “seen Pal Joey twice,” while Bing admits also to loving the movie and that “Kim Novak’s very nice,” as well. Generally, however, the positive mentions tend to exclude subjects favored by the generation of Elvis fans.