ONCE UPON A TIME
June 7, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Charles Strouse, born on this date in 1928, turns ninety years old today. His more than 30 stage musicals, including 14 for Broadway, contain some of my personal favorite songs written for the theatre. A salute to his talents on this special birthday is surely in order.
I clearly remember when I first discovered his music. Not only did I love the film of Bye Bye Birdie from the time it came out in 1963 (I was six), but the hit number from that show, “Put On a Happy Face” was the theme song for The Hollywood Palace, a TV variety show that I was glued to every Saturday night from the time it premiered in 1964 (and still go to YouTube to listen to its orchestral arrangement that opened and closed the show each week). It was also used as the theme song for Chuck McCann’s syndicated kid’s show Let’s Have Fun, which was a huge part of my childhood. As the song still brings me undiluted joy whenever I hear it, Charles Strouse pretty much had me at “hello.”
Continuing his rich bio, Strouse’s official website boasts the following: “He has also composed scores for five Hollywood films, two orchestral works and an opera. He has been inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame. He is a three–time Tony Award winner, a two–time Emmy Award winner, and his cast recordings have earned him two Grammy Awards. His song “Those Were the Days” launched over 200 episodes of All in the Family and continues to reach new generations of television audiences in syndication. With hundreds of productions licensed annually, his musicals Annie and Bye Bye Birdie are among the most popular of all time.”
Of course, for every Bye Bye Birdie or Annie, there was A Broadway Musical or Dance a Little Closer (two Strouse musicals that, sadly, closed on their opening nights). But if he had his share of flops alongside his hits, who cares? So did every other major Broadway composer in the 20th century. As everyone knows, no one sets out to make a bad show. You get the breaks or you get broken, and Strouse was no stranger to any of that.
Case in point was All American, Strouse’s next musical after Birdie. Once again re-teaming with lyricist Lee Adams, they brought on board a new book writer, a mutual friend named Mel Brooks, a TV comedy writer with limited theatre experience, who turned out to be less than ideal (according to most sources, he never wound up finishing Act II of of the show). An adaptation of a novel titled Professor Fodorski, by Robert Lewis Taylor, All American attempted a satirical look at the immigrant experience from the point of view of a Hungarian professor who comes to America to teach at a small southern college. Opening two years after Birdie’s freshmen success, All American lent credence to the fearsome “sophomore jinx,” closing in less than two months. Its fate was pretty much assured by Howard Taubman in the New York Times, when he wrote: “With a stage full of targets in sight, All American has managed the amazing feat of hitting none.”
Still, All American has some wonderful songs in it, especially the ballad “Once Upon a Time.” Written quickly in Philadelphia to replace a scene that wasn’t working between the show’s two leads (Ray Bolger and Eileen Herlie), Strouse and Adams were thrilled when Tony Bennett decided to record it. It was to be the “A” side on a 45 record, only it didn’t turn out that way. “Once Upon a Time” got no attention, but when DJs flipped the record over, it was the “B” side, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” that captured the hearts of listeners, becoming a huge hit and winning the 1962 Grammy for Record of the Year (don’t cry for Strouse and Adams: for every record sold they got the same residual payments as George Cory and Douglass Cross did for “San Francisco”). Eventually, “Once Upon a Time” got recorded by other artists, thus finding its rightful place as a standard.
Two Strouse and Adams musicals followed in the mid-1960s, Golden Boy and It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman. And even if the shows containing them didn’t merit critics’ raves, the scores are terrific. Luckily, audiences have had a chance to hear them again with full orchestras at City Center’s Encores!, in productions staged in 2002 and 2013, respectively. Golden Boy, based on Clifford Odets’s 1930s boxing melodrama, was written as a vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. Though it ran a year and-a-half, it couldn’t manage to return its full investment. Worse luck hit with Superman, which failed after four months, though its score remains a personal favorite of mine, as well as many other musical comedy aficionados I’ve encountered over the years (if you don’t know it, just listen to Strouse’s overture, and try not to fall in love with it, as well as its brilliant orchestration by the arranger Eddie Sauter).
In 1970, Strouse and Adams won their second Tonys with Applause. It wasn’t the last show they would write together, but it was their last one that was a hit. A musical version of the 1950 Academy Award winning All About Eve, it ran two years and made an unlikely musical theatre star of Lauren Bacall. It then took seven long years for Strouse to return to Broadway, but when he did, it was one for the record books. Annie, based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, ran for six and-a-half-years, won seven Tony Awards, and has since been revived three times on Broadway and made into three different films. Its signature tune, “Tomorrow,” is an anthem that has become known to millions the world over.
Although Strouse would never have another smash like Annie again, perhaps he took some solace in the fact that few do. It’s a shame, however, that his 1986 musical Rags (written with Stephen Schwartz), a far more dramatic take on the immigrant experience than All American, should contain perhaps the finest music Strouse has composed for the theatre. Plagued by an unwieldy and unworkable story, it closed after 4 performances. Recently, a production I saw this past season at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, even with a seriously rewritten book, did not make the case for reconsideration.
Charles Strouse has written songs for more than sixty years that have inspired not only generations of composers, but nearly anyone with a love for the musical theatre. I’ll close with a great story he tells in his autobiography:
“I was lecturing to students at the University of Miami when a young man came up to me afterward and said, ‘When I heard Ann-Margret sing ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ in the film, I knew then that I wanted to be in the theatre.’”
“Humbled, I responded, ‘You knew you wanted to be a composer?’”
“‘No,’ he replied. ‘I wanted to be Ann-Margret.’”
If you enjoy these columns, Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway is available at Amazon.com, in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.