The American Songbook in London: Jeff Harnar

“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 & E. Y. Harburg, Marc Blitzstein, Gene de Paul & Johnny Mercer, Rik Besoyan, Meredith Willson, Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner, Tommy Wolf & Fran Landesman, Mary Rogers & Marshall Barer, Albert Hague & Dorothy Fields, Bob Merrill, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim, Bobby Darin, Max Steiner & Mack Discant

Jeff Harnar – Singer & Presenter
Alex Rybeck – Musical Director & Pianist
Steve McManus – Double bass
Sara Louise Lazarus – Director

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 11 March, 2008
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Jeff Harnar. ©JHThe final week of the current season of “The American Songbook in London” places series-presenter Jeff Harnar into the spotlight with a batch of musical-theatre songs from the year 1959. What a wealth of Broadway music there was in that particular year and no doubt had Harnar chosen any other year between, say, 1935 and 1965, he would have come up with just as many riches. Jeff chose 1959 because that was the year he was born and, like the ‘Dapper Dan’ that Jeff is, these songs also wear their years very well indeed. It is doubtful that in fifty years’ time any future impresario will be able to mine such a rich seam as this.

In 1959 there were over twenty or so musicals running on Broadway. Some opened during that year but many others were the long-running shows still packing the audiences in. Looking at the two dozen musicals running in London at the moment, only half are still on their first runs and, with the likes of “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Les Misérables”, “Mamma Mia”, “The Lion King” and “We will rock you”, they are all long runs at that. But many are back-catalogue compilations. We may live in interesting times but the heyday of the great (American or British) original musical has long since passed.

Jeff Harnar notes that the year 1959 first gave us the hula-hoop, Etch A Sketch, the Barbie doll – and Jeff Harnar. “Having loved Broadway music for as long as I can remember, I was curious to see which musicals shared my birth-year. When I discovered more than twenty musicals were playing in 1959, some new, some still running from previous seasons, my imagination took flight. Inspired by the seemingly impossible number of wonderful shows in a single season, I wanted to create a musical collage highlighting the delicious diversity and colours of their collective songbooks. I have also aspired to pay homage to the very structure of the classic 1950s Broadway musical.”

To this end he has created a typical boy-meets-girl type of story, in which some object comes between their love, such as a rival street gang, a family or neighbours or even the Alps, and he and Alex Rybeck have arranged the show-songs to fit around the theme and provide commentary on the love-story and present a pocket-sized Broadway musical.

The arrangement of the songs is a true labour of love and of the type that was probably pioneered by David Kernan and Caryl Brahms for “Side by side by Sondheim” show in 1976 which presented a new world as seen through the theatre-songs of Stephen Sondheim. In fact Rybeck pays a small tribute to Sondheim when he quotes during the song ‘Don’t marry me’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower drum song”, the introduction to ‘I’m not getting married’ from “Company”. Sondheim is also well represented elsewhere in 1959 by his lyrics for ‘One hand, one heart’ and ‘Tonight’ from “West Side Story” and ‘All I need is the girl’, ’Everything’s coming up roses’, ‘Let me entertain you’, ‘Together’ and ‘You’ll never get away from me’, all from “Gypsy”.

Some of the greatest composer and lyricists were represented on Broadway in 1959, from Jule Styne, Comden & Green, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg, to Lerner & Loewe, Meredith Willson, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bob Merrill and Albert Hague & Dorothy Fields. We will never see their like again. But we can still enjoy the songs they produced: songs like ‘Bells are ringing’, ‘The party’s over’, ‘Long before I knew you’, ‘Too long at the fair’, ‘Little Mary Sunshine’, ‘76 trombones’ and ‘’Til there was you’, plus blockbusters from “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” – ‘I could have danced all night’, ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’, ‘On the street where you live’, ‘My favourite things’ and ‘Climb ev’ry mountain’.

What is also remarkable about 1959 is that you could have seen in the space of a single year an amazing array of legendary performers – 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.

Jeff Harnar has a very pleasant, warm voice and he sings all numbers in a clear and open way, conveying his own enjoyment of the material and giving it his best shot. It’s a perfect little show, skilfully assembled with utter precision and the sheer joy of the songs, accompanied by the expert musicianship of Alex Rybeck on piano (and some vocals), and Steve McManus on bass. Don’t miss!

  • The American Songbook in London is at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, W1
  • Jeff Harnar sings “The 1959 Broadway Songbook” until 15 March

  • Jeff Harnar
  • Performances on Tuesday to Saturday @ 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m.; tickets £25.00
  • Bookings on 020 7287 2875
  • Jermyn Street Theatre
  • American Songbook in London

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