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92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years”

Jaunty, melodic and joyful tribute to the oft-neglected but great composer of popular, blues and romantic songs from his first remarkable decade.

Stephen DeRosa, Erin Dilly, Klea Blackhurst and Nathaniel Stampley as they appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Stephen DeRosa, Erin Dilly, Klea Blackhurst and Nathaniel Stampley as they appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The opening concert of 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists 2017 season was a jaunty, joyous and melodic tribute to an oft-neglected composer, aptly called “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years.” The two and a half hour program was almost not long enough to include a catalog of such American standards as “Sweet and Low,” “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Down with Love,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and the incomparable “Over the Rainbow,” all from one ten year period. If Arlen does not always get his due, it might be that his Broadway shows are not among the standard repertory like the more familiar works of Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter or George Gershwin.

The show was written by theater historian Robert Kimball, and hosted by the irrepressible Klea Blackhurst who also contributed to the vocals. The music was provided by the always reliable Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, with Giordano providing period accurate arrangements and co-music direction with Peter Yarin who appeared at the piano. Celebrating his tenth anniversary as a director with Lyrics & Lyricists, Gary Griffin staged a terrific evening of song and story of the first decade (1930-1939) of this prolific composer.

Aside from Blackhurst, the excellent cast was made up of tenor Stephen DeRosa, soprano Erin Dilly, blues and jazz stylist Catherine Russell and baritone Nathaniel Stampley. The songs were neatly divided throughout the evening: DeRosa on the comic songs, Dilly on the romantic ones, Stampley on the anti-romantic songs, Blackhurst belting the Ethel Merman-type songs, and Russell singing the blues numbers. The evening also included two archival film clips: a silent film of Arlen playing “Buffalo Rhythm” with his band, The Buffalodians in 1926, for which the Nighthawks provided the music, and a much later television interview in which Arlen revealed that he had no one working method with his six lyricists (words or music first?), but wrote all different ways with each of these noted wordsmiths.

Musician, singer and bandleader Vince Giordano as he appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Musician, singer and bandleader Vince Giordano as he appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The show began with Arlen’s first hit, “Get Happy,” 1930, and ended with his 1939 score for the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. The first half of the evening was devoted to Arlen’s stand-alone popular tunes, his songs written for the Cotton Club Revues (1932-1934), and musical numbers for early sound movies. Blackhurst recounted how Arlen (born Hyman Arluck of Buffalo, New York), was a child prodigy singing in his father’s choir when he was seven, forming his own bands in his late teens, and occasionally appearing as a vocalist with them on records in his twenties.

Among his early hits presented, all by lyricist Ted Koehler, were “You Said It,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Happy As the Day Is Long,” and Russell wrapping her lustrous voice around “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” “Ill Wind” and “Stormy Weather.” Songs from forgotten film musicals included “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (lyrics by Billy Rose and E.Y. Harburg) and “Let’s Fall in Love” (Koehler). DeRosa and cast turned “I Love to Sing-A,” a E.Y. Harburg song written for Al Jolson into a merry comedy number, while DeRosa channeling Eddie Cantor and Blackhurst doing her best Merman joined forces in the forgotten “Calabash Pipe” (Lew Brown). The first act finale was a foot-tapping rendition of “I Love a Parade” with the entire cast.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Arlen’s 1930’s Broadway shows written mainly with Harburg, as well as their film songs written for the likes of opera star Lawrence Tibbett, comedian Groucho Marx and songbird Judy Garland. The opening four selections were from the 1934 John Murray Anderson revue, Life Begins at 8:40, which reunited Arlen with his school friends, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, the only collaboration between the two cleverest lyricists in the business. Stampley, DeRosa, Blackhurst and Dilly turned the witty and forgotten “Quartet Erotica” (i.e. Rabelais, de Maupassant, Boccaccio and Balzac) into a hilarious specialty number. DeRosa’s “You’re A Builder-Upper” morphed into a duet in counterpoint with Dilly’s “Fun to Be Fooled.” Their duet continued with the lilting, “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block.”

Catherine Russell with the Nighthawks as they appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Catherine Russell with the Nighthawks as they appeared in “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Two songs from Arlen’s first book musical, the Ray Bolger/Bert Lahr anti-war show, Hooray for What?, followed with two unconventional love songs, the buoyant “Down with Love,” sung by Stampley, and the bluesy, “Moanin’ in the Morning,” originally sung by (of all people!) I love Lucy’s Vivian Vance, and here crooned by Russell. The blues and jazz vocalist’s only other solo in the second half was the anthem, “I’ve Got A Right to Sing the Blues” (Koehler), a rousing rendition of the song from the 1932 revue, Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Although Giordano was suffering from a sore throat, he gamely sang Kohler’s syncopated “Trickeration,” from the 1931 revue, Rhythmania.

The final set of the evening was taken from Harburg/Arlen Hollywood films of the late 1930’s. Stampley sang the haunting, “Last Night When We Were Young,” cut from the Lawrence Tibbett musical, Metropolitan, as the producers mistakenly thought it was too depressing – it went on to be become a standard sung by both Garland and Sinatra. Groucho Marx’s bona fide hit, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” from At the Circus, was rollickingly recreated by De Rosa and the cast.

Introduced by theater historian Robert Kimball who actually knew Arlen, The Wizard of Oz film medley sung by the entire cast was probably the most familiar of the songs. The show ended with a rousing sing-a-long to “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” Listening to this collection of joyful and jaunty songs that had given so much pleasure to so many people over the years, it was hard to believe that we had been told composer Arlen was a manic depressive who gave up song writing and withdrew from life during his last 16 years after the death of his wife. However, as “Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” proved, his legacy continues unabated.

92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series:“Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years” (January 21 – 23, 2017)

92Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, at 92nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (358 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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