The 1959 Broadway Songbook – Pizza on the Park

The 1959 Broadway Songbook

Music and lyrics by Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Billy Barnes, Harold Rome, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, Robert Goldman, George Weiss & Glen Paxton, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, Meredith Willson, Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner, Mary Rodgers & Marshall Barer, Bob Merrill, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim, Bobby Darin, Max Steiner & Mack Discant

Jeff Harnar – Singer & Presenter
Anna Bergman – Singer
Susannah Fellows – Singer
Nathan Martin – Singer & Pianist

Sara Louise Lazarus – Director
Alex Rybeck – Musical Arrangements

Presented by Jeff Harnar’s The American Songbook in London series

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 March, 2009
Venue: Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London

Fifty years ago the season on Broadway was blessed with productions of over twenty musicals. Some, such as “Destry rides again”, “Gypsy”, “Little Mary Sunshine”, “Once upon a mattress”, “Redhead”, “Saratoga”, “The Sound of Music” and “Take me along” opened during that year, while others, like “Bells are ringing”, “Flower Drum Song”, “The Music Man”, “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story”, were long-running successes. During the 1959 New York theatre season you could have seen the likes of Chita Rivera, Larry Kert, Lena Horne, Ricardo Montalban, Adelaide Hall, Alvin Ailey, Barbara Cook, Robert Preston, Juanita Hall, Gwen Verdon, Richard Kiley, Andy Griffith, Dolores Gray, Scott Brady, Carol Burnett, Jack Gilford, Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, Robert Morse, Tom Bosley, Eileen Brennan, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. It’s a rare year that can offer such a roster of talent.

According to Jeff Harnar, host and artistic director of “The 1959 Broadway Songbook”, 1959 was also the year that the Barbie Doll was born, when the hula-hoop first appeared and when Etch A Sketch was invented. It was also the year that Jeff was born, the time of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Flanders & Swann, Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, Meredith Willson, Mary Rodgers, Bob Merrill, Dorothy Fields, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. As Jeff says: “I wanted to create a musical collage highlighting the delicious diversity and colours of their collective songbooks.” In total it amounts to about six hundred songs. Not all of them manage to get into Jeff’s show. He has, however, chosen a rich vein to mine, perhaps from a time that was a Golden Age for the Broadway musical. He quotes Barbara Cook. When told that in the 1950s she and her fellow artists had been living in a Golden Age for musicals, she was surprised and just thought they were lucky to be working.

“The 1959 Broadway Songbook” dates from 1991 and has been playing on and off in the US and elsewhere since 1991 and has even appeared on CD, DVD and television. As directed by Sara Louise Lazarus and with musical arrangements by Alex Rybeck that knit the material into a seamless tapestry, this is a superior and highly entertaining piece, the epitome of the compilation show. Far from being just a recital of one song after another, it has a form and structure that weaves each song into a pattern and a kind of plot, mixing up the material into a love story in which boy meets girl but with things coming between their love for each other, a street gang, a family or neighbours or even quite possibly an Alp.

The show introduces itself with ‘Tonight’ from “West Side Story” (1957) with Jeff explaining the show’s conceit. The Overture comprises numbers by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Sondheim and Bob Merrill, from “Gypsy” and the title-songs from “The Sound of Music” and “Take me along” as well as ‘Everything’s coming up roses’ and ‘Together’, which establish the meeting of the boy and girl. These lead into such love-songs as ‘Goodnight my someone’ and ‘Till there was you’ from “The music man”, ‘A perfect evening’ from “First impressions” and ‘I could have danced all night’ from “My Fair Lady”. The songs are divided between the singers, Ann Bergman, Susannah Fellows and Jeff Harnar. Susannah sings ‘Shy’ from “Once upon a mattress”, a song about a loud girl who is anything but shy. Susannah could give Ethel Merman a lesson in volume with her big and brassy delivery. She also does a duet from “Gypsy” with Anna speculating that ‘If momma was married’ their lives would be much easier: “…but momma gets married and married and married / But never gets carried away…” This runs into a Marriage Medley with Jeff and Nathan pleading to ‘Get me to the church on time’ and admitting that ‘I’m an ordinary man’ (“My Fair Lady”), but also warning ‘Don’t marry me’ (“Flower Drum Song”) and revealing ‘One hand, one heart’ (“West Side story”). The first half ends with the company advising ‘Love look away’ (“Flower drum song”).

Hitherto Jeff has staged the show in London only in a solo version. It seems to work even better with a quartet of performers. The interaction between the cast is what makes the show come alive and they are all spot-on in their interpretations of the songs. Anna Bergman has a pure soprano voice and beautiful enunciation, Susannah Fellows is blessed with a powerful brash voice that can deal with anything from point-number to love-song. Jeff Harnar is a born crooner, ‘Mr Smooth’ writ large with both charm and a witty way with a lyric. Nathan Martin is the perfect accompanist, an excellent pianist with a sure touch while he also happens to be no slouch in the vocal department either.

After the Intermission of non-theatre songs you might have heard in 1959, such as Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream lover’, Lerner and Loewe’s ‘Gigi’ and Max Steiner’s theme from “A Summer Place” (cue; if Troy Donahue can be a movie star…), there’s an Entr’acte with more songs from “My Fair Lady”, “Gypsy” and ‘Too long at the fair’ from “Billy Barnes’ Revue”, culminating in ‘Just in time’ from “Bells are ringing”, all sung by the entire company. In a Politics Medley, the newly married young man has to get a job, so Jeff and Nathan go into public life with ‘Politics and Poker’ and ‘Little tin box’ from “Fiorello!”, ‘The men who run the country’ from “Saratoga”, and ‘No way to stop it’ from “The Sound of Music”. Meanwhile, the young bride is being seduced by the roguish Nathan in ‘Madeira, m’dear’, from Flanders & Swann’s revue “At the drop of a hat” which was coining it in New York fifty years ago. Following ‘Happily ever after‘ (“Once upon a mattress”), ‘The party’s over’ (from “Bells are Ringing”) and ‘I say hello’ (from “Destry Rides Again”) we’re into a Love Song Medley of ‘Sixteen going on seventeen’ (“The Sound of Music”), ‘When I fall in love’ (“Fiorello!”) and ‘Till there was you’ (“The Music Man”) and then there’s a Curtain Call of more from “Fiorello!” and “Bells are Ringing”, the last of which has the audience joining in for a tear-jerking ‘Just in time’.

It’s a great little show and one that reminds us what a treasure-trove is contained in this Broadway Songbook material from America’s Golden Age of musical shows. Will people fifty years from now claim that the current era was another Golden Age? Perhaps not, because the old truism still holds sway in that they really don’t write songs like these any more. It is good to hear them again and in such congenial surroundings as Pizza on the Park.

  • The 1959 Broadway Songbook plays at Pizza on the Park every Sunday and Monday until 13 April 2009: Sunday at 3 p.m and 7 p.m. (doors open at 1.30 and 5.30), Monday at 7.45 p.m., doors open 6
  • Bookings on 08456 027 017

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