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On the Town with Chip Deffaa: “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road”… Carmichael deserves better

If Hoagy Carmichael had composed nothing more than “Stardust”—as perfect and intriguing a number as any in the Great American Songbook--he’d merit celebration.  He created, of course, many more unforgettable songs.  He merits much finer treatment, though, than he’s gotten in the new show built around his songs.

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Poster for “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road” (Courtesy of the York Theatre Company)

[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

Boy! This is going to be a tough review to write.  The York Theatre Company, which has such a strong track record when it comes to honoring important songwriters, is currently presenting a revue of Hoagy Carmichael songs called Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road.  Carmichael (1899-1981) is one of the greatest of American songwriters.  No one’s done an overview of Carmichael’s work in many, many years.  So, this production is important.   The show should be a natural.  But developing a show isn’t always easy.

This will likely be the longest review I’ve ever written about a single show; but the show merits a detailed discussion.  The production I just saw has significant flaws, as well as significant strengths.  I hope the show can be further developed so it can fulfill its potential.

Please bear with me.  It will take a bit of time to discuss what’s good and what’s not so good in this production.  But this show—even if it’s not yet where it needs to be—is worth getting right.

There’s a tremendous, long-standing need for a good Hoagy Carmichael show. A  Carmichael musical, properly presenting the best of his work, ought to be on Broadway.  I’ve yearned to see a Carmichael musical in New York for decades—ever since I saw an unforgettable concert celebration of Carmichael on June 27th, 1979 at Carnegie Hall.  His music is pure Americana.

If it could be developed properly, I’d love to see Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road have a good life, transfer to a bigger, commercial theater in New York, and eventually become a standard work that’s done in regional theaters everywhere.

Carmichael’s songs, which include “Stardust,” “Skylark,” “(Up a) Lazy River,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “The Nearness of You”—glorious gems of popular music—certainly deserve to be celebrated.  Carmichael—exceptionally successful as both a songwriter and a performer–was a genius.  His composition “Stardust”—as perfect and intriguing a composition as you’ll ever find in all of American popular music–has been recorded more than 3,600 times.  It’s the most-recorded number in the Great American Songbook.

Any show gathering Carmichael classics is bound to offer rewards.  And this show has moments that work very well.  I’d go see it again just for the peak moments.

But, alas—and I hate having to write this–this show in its present form has problems.  A lot of them.  The show could—and should—be much, much better than it is.

Danielle Herbert in a scene from “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road” at the York Theatre Company (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’d still encourage you to go see it.  There isn’t a show in town with a richer score.  There are some newcomers in this show—such as singers Danielle Herbert and Dion Simmons Grier—whom I enjoyed tremendously and look forward to seeing in other shows. Of course I’m glad that the York is trying to honor Carmichael.  And there are moments in this show that just pop. And I delighted in those moments.

But somewhere in the process of developing this unwieldy show, the director (Susan H. Schulman), the choreographer (Michael Lichtefeld), and music director/arranger/pianist (Lawrence Yurman) have lost their way.  Those three seasoned pros—artists I respect, who’ve done work in the past that I greatly admire–are credited with conceiving this production, “developed with Hoagy Bix Carmichael” (the son of the famed songwriter).  But somehow, much of the authentic, idiosyncratic Hoagy Carmichael spirit—crackling with vitality–has been washed out of this surprisingly  uneven and unfocused production.

* * *

I’ve been rooting for a Hoagy Carmichael show for many years.  He’s one of my favorite songwriters.

Hoagy Bix Carmichael and I were guests on television’s The Joe Franklin Show the night that Hoagy Bix Carmichael made the first public announcement that he was developing a show with a working title of Stardust Road – a show that would be built around his father’s music. He said he was working hard to raise financing so that the show could, hopefully, make it to Broadway in the next year.  That proved harder than expected.  Joe Franklin invited him back again, to help publicize and pitch the show that he so very much hoped to make a reality.

The years passed by and the long-anticipated show kept getting postponed.  A pity, because Hoagy Bix Carmichael so completely knew and loved his father’s work, and the show that he spoke of with me that night on Joe Franklin’s long-running talk show felt magical—as magical as the best of Carmichael’s music, as magical as Carmichael’s own utterly winning memoir, which was also titled Stardust Road.  (I’ve long cherished my first-edition copy of that memoir.)

I had high hopes when the York Theatre Company, under the direction of the indefatigable Jim Morgan, announced that this long-dreamed-of show was finally becoming a reality.  I was very happy that I got to congratulate Hoagy Bix Carmichael one night at the York last month.  I did not see how a show built around the wonderful Carmichael catalog of songs could miss.

But this production, I’m sorry to report, still feels very much like a work-in-progress.  It needs an awful lot of pruning, revising, and re-thinking if it is to become an enduring work, a show that’s frequently produced.  In its present form, it’s just not clicking.  Too often, it feels busy, overly crowded with material.  For starters, if the show is to succeed, the creative team needs to open it up a bit–try to do fewer songs but do them as well as possible, and give the show some opportunities to breathe.

I wish I could be writing an all-out rave for Stardust Road right now.  I wish I could write that the production caught me and held me from first note to last—the way I felt decades ago when, for example, I first saw the brilliantly conceived and executed Ain’t Misbehavin’ (which celebrated the songs of Fats Waller, and just dazzled me).  I wish I could write that this show does for Carmichael what Ain’t Misbehavin’ did for Waller.  Or what Five Guys Named Moe did for Louis Jordan.  Or what Smokey Joe’s Café did for Leiber & Stoller.  Those song-filled shows worked wonderfully well as shows.

And Carmichael’s body of work has greater depth, variety, and substance than the work of the artists celebrated in the enduringly popular, above-named shows.  He’s a major writer.  A Carmichael show, properly done, should be a winner.

* * *

The company of “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road” at the York Theatre Company (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road –in its current form-has some strong moments, some strong performers, and it certainly has lots of good songs. But it’s a hit-and-miss kind of production.  And there are, at present, far too many misses.

The show features no less than 44 Carmichael songs, which are sung one-after-another with no spoken dialogue in between. It eventually comes to feel like…much too much. Well before the show is over, you lose the ability to properly appreciate each new song coming at you.  Some terrific songs wind up becoming lost in a mélange.

Let me offer an analogy.   Even the most experienced wine tasters cannot keep  tasting without pause one wine after another—no matter how fine the individual wines may be–or the tongue becomes jaded.  The tasters need to interrupt the wine-tasting with a bit of fruit or bread or cheese or sherbet to cleanse and refresh the palate.  In a similar way, interrupting singing with bits of dialogue or instrumental passages can help, in effect, “refresh the palate” for audience members.  But being sung at  relentlessly for 90 minutes—even by good singers singing good songs, as is the case here—can eventually come to feel oppressive.

One reason that the  musical revues Ain’t Misbehavin’, Five Guys Named Moe, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe all worked so well was because there was a lot of very clear, very enjoyable story-telling going on.  The wonderfully arranged-and-performed songs, aided by clever staging, told us assorted stories.  And we quickly got caught up in—and pulled along by–the little scenarios being shown on stage.

By contrast, the storytelling in Stardust Road is too often muddied; and the show feels overly cluttered.  The creative team has crammed so many songs into the show–often treating minor songs as if they were the equal of the great ones—it reaches the point of overload.  The show, packing 44 songs into 90 minutes, feels long.  It is not always holding us.  Judicious pruning and focusing is essential.

I must stress, there is no hard-and-fast rule saying that a show will inevitably feel “too long” if it exceeds a certain running-time or a certain number of songs.  As I’ve noted repeatedly in print over the years, one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever attended in my life was the all-star celebration of Hoagy Carmichael’s 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall, which George Wein presented on Jun 27th, 1979 as part of the Newport Jazz Festival. That concert—which was called The Stardust Road: A Hoagy Carmichael Jubilee– had a much longer running-time than the current revue Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road.  And it, too, was jam-packed with songs.  But that well-paced presentation—so wonderfully put together by Dick Sudhalter–just flew by.  I left in a state of elation, wishing the concert had lasted longer.

Hoagy Carmichael (Couresy of the York Theatre Company)

The songs all got proper treatment.  There was plenty of variety in terms of styles and sounds, and tempos, and just enough spoken patter from the participants (and from Hoagy Carmichael himself at the end), to keep you engaged 100% throughout. That concert convinced me that a good show built around Carmichael’s music could be a smash.  And the participants in the concert– including Bob Crosby, Max Morath, Kay Starr, Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Bob Haggart, Jackie Cain, Bob Wilber and Sudhalter himself–really knew and loved the music.  They made sure each song was given its due. It was a night—with just the right artists and just the right songs—filled with surprises and delights.  I watched that concert and thought: A sensational Broadway show could be made from these songs. 

* * *

But Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road, in its current formation as presented by the York, doesn’t really succeed as a show.  What went wrong?  What can be fixed?

The  musical arrangements, at present, too often have a similar sort of good-natured-but-bland feel—like a nice little society-type band, playing pleasantly for a country-club dance.  And that is a major problem right there.  There’s virtually no authentic jazz sensibility to the show.  And Carmichael’s music, perhaps more than that of any other major American songwriter, was informed by his love of jazz. His music emerged from a very specific jazz milieu.

Over the years I interviewed—at their homes and at work–assorted veteran musicians who helped give us the classic recordings of Carmichael songs in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s: men like Bill Challis, Bud Freeman, Red Norvo,  Arnold Brilhart, Benny Goodman, Billy Butterfield, Artie Shaw…. They considered Carmichael—unlike most songwriters– one of them, a man with roots in the jazz world, a man who’d been formed and shaped by a particular type of jazz.  That crucial element is missing from this show, and it makes the show, at times, feel oddly colorless.  Almost like—and I’m exaggerating a bit here to make a point—a Muzak version of the Carmichael oeuvre.

Music director/pianist Lawrence Yurman, who crafted the arrangements for this show, does not appear to be the right person for the job.  He has solid credentials as a generalist in the fields of theater, cabaret, concerts, and academia.  He has worked in various capacities (conductor, music director, arranger) for various shows on Broadway, at Paper Mill Playhouse, and at Radio City Music Hall.  He’s worked in the cabaret and concert worlds.  He’s long taught at NYU.  He has played for such performers as Lea Salonga and T. Oliver Reid. Those are impressive credentials.  I respect his accomplishments.

But being the ideal person to play for Lea Salonga or T. Oliver Reid does not necessarily mean you’re the ideal person to interpret Hoagy Carmichael. That’s a huge responsibility.  And if you’re going to present Carmichael’s music to the world, ideally you should not only know the music inside-out, you should love it, fully understand its particular strengths, and make sure you’re letting those strengths be seen to best advantage.  I don’t see much evidence of that in this production.

Dick Sudhalter, who produced the Carnegie Hall concert, was a longtime Carmichael devotee/expert/enthusiast.  He wrote eloquently, lovingly, and at length about Carmichael in books, articles, and liner notes; he frequently played and recorded Carmichael’s music himself; and he produced the definitive Carmichael boxed set, which I’ve relished for decades.  His passion for—and expertise concerning—Carmichael’s music helped make that Carnegie Hall concert soar.

The current production of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road doesn’t soar as much as I’d like.  And the weakest moments in the production have a casual, superficial feel reminiscent of elevator music.  I’m not knocking the songs themselves, but the way some of them are being treated.

* * *

The show certainly begins promisingly.  Stardust Road is divided into five sequences, set in different time periods, starting with the 1920s.  Wisely, a number of very good songs are programmed right up front, to give the show a good start.  We get to “meet,” in effect, the seven likeable singers and six musicians who will be taking us on this musical journey, and we get to enjoy some winning numbers very early in the show like “Moon Country” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”  (The latter is handled particularly well.)  We’re effortlessly drawn in.   And that’s very nice.

I initially warmed to the sound of the band.  I happily took note of the banjo-playing and the ricky-tick drumming; the music director/arranger is cueing us that we’re in the 1920s now, and that’s a good thing.  That ensemble sound was appealing to me.  The band made an agreeable first impression. (And Bill Lanham, a fine drummer, gave us that ricky-tick percussion with good taste. I was enjoying it.)

But as the show wore on, and the same  effect of banjo-plus-ricky-tick-drumming kept being used  to suggest in some general way “the good old days,” I thought: This  arranger seems to have a limited number of effects in his repertoire.  He’s giving us, again and again, a kind of dumbed-down generic approximation of what he think old-time music was like.  It’s simple and obvious, in a paint-by-numbers kind of way.  Synthetic nostalgia.  And it’s a dishonest representation of the highly creative Carmichael and his friends.  On the best early recordings of Carmichael’s music, you never knew what you might hear next—maybe now a gruff, swinging bass sax, maybe Eddie Lang’s sprightly acoustic guitar, maybe a lilting C-melody sax. We’re hearing nothing like that here….

In the show’s opening montage, the band plays Carmichael’s wonderful 1920s creation, “Riverboat Shuffle”—but it is served up as a surprisingly nondescript, simple bit of background music for dancing.  I doubt audience members are expected to even really notice the music; it could be almost any music in that spot, so long as it’s got the right number of beats, because the scene as currently presented is all about the dancing; the music is almost an incidental afterthought, something inconsequential in the background.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke

“Riverboat Shuffle” was one of Carmichael’s early triumphs.  The 1927 recording made by the sublime cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, saxist Frank Trumbauer and company, arranged by Bill Challis, is one of the jazz masterpieces of the 1920s.   It has a very specific character.  It is nothing like the hokey generic oldtime music that Yurman’s arrangements are often suggesting in this show.  Challis was a more sophisticated and inventive arranger than Yurman appears to be (if we are to judge by Yurman’s arrangements for this show).

Carmichael, Beiderbecke, Challis weren’t trying to create typical 1920s music; they were forward-thinking musicians, setting sights high, striving to make the very best new music they could.  Challis told me in his home that they were young artists who were committed modernists.  And that recording of “Riverboat Shuffle” holds up so well, nearly a hundred years later, because it is first-rate work, played with conviction.  I wish this show could have caught some of the flavor of Beiderbecke’s classic recording of that number.  A skillful trumpeter quoting Beiderbecke’s solo could add wonderful resonance to this show.  And you could evoke some of Challis’ modernistic arranging touches without trying to re-create the whole piece.

Carmichael idolized the legendary Bix Beiderbecke.  He drew inspiration from him.  (The Carmichael standards “Stardust” and “Skylark clearly have their roots in Bix’s jazz playing.)  To make no attempt to conjure up even a little of the Beiderbecke sound in this production is an almost unforgiveable lapse.

I still remember, many decades after I first read Carmichael’s wonderfully unusual memoir, his rapturous descriptions of Beiderkecke’s playing–the way Carmichael staggered to the davenport and collapsed from the sheer beauty of the music, the first time that he heard Beiderbecke play. Carmichael was so sensitive and responsive to Beiderbecke’s music!  He recalled Beiderbecke’s playing the way most people might recall the first time they fell in love.  If Yurman doesn’t feel the music that way (the way that Sudhalter did), let someone who does feel it supervise the music in the show.  If you don’t fully perceive the beauty in the music, you won’t be able to get others to perceive it.

There are talented specialists in older styles of jazz who know, love, and live for the music that Carmichael appreciated and helped create—jazz players like Vince Giordano, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Rhinehart, Dan Levinson, Howard Alden, Herb Gardner, Andy Stein, Simon Wettenhall, Colin Hancock, Randy Sandke, Arnie Kinsella, Rob Garcia, Brian Nalepka,  to name a few.  If the music in this show were arranged and played by artists who really know, understand, and love this music, the show would have far more character.

I was really disappointed that “Riverboat Shuffle” was dispensed with so casually.

I was even more disappointed, I might add, that they’ve left out altogether the joyous “Jubilee,” which Carmichael wrote especially for Louis Armstrong, another of Carmichael’s musical favorites.  Armstrong’s soaring virtuoso trumpet flight-of-fancy on “Jubilee” was breathtaking, a high point of his big-band years.  There are a few jazz trumpeters around (like Jon-Erik Kellso and Randy Sandke) who can re-create with panache Armstrong’s famed cadenzas on that ebullient number; putting something like that into the show would give the show a tremendous lift.

I think working in more instrumental breaks into Stardust Road would not only add something to the show, they’d help audiences to appreciate the singers even more. Mixing things up a bit more, helping our ears to refresh, makes audience members more attentive.  Hearing a horn—instead of a human voice–for eight bars, or 16 or 32 bars, would give us an aural change-of-pace that would help us savor the singers more.  We need more breaks like that in the show, just the way the wine-taster needs the variety provided by a bit of fruit or sherbet.

The show at present is trying to do too much, and things wind up getting lost in the shuffle.

I get what the director is trying to accomplish when one character dies during the World War II sequence, and when the other characters pose with his framed portrait towards the end.  But I also think that by that point–late in this over-crowded show–many audience members  may have simply  tuned out. If you give audience members too many songs in a row, without pause, some audience members will begin to get sleepy or restless, or start wondering how many songs are left in the show. Most people do not have the attention-span needed to take in 44 songs sung one-after-another, and follow carefully everything that is happening.

If the director wants the death of a character in a show to fully hit us all emotionally, care must be taken in setting up that moment.  You have to keep the “tired businessman” in the audience engaged, alert, and involved; you have to make your audience members care about the characters.  But this production is so cluttered, details that the director hopes will register (like the well-staged military funeral scene) wind up getting lost.  You want to streamline the show for greater clarity, so that when a character dies or his framed portrait is held in someone’s hands, you can feel audience members really “getting” that moment.

* * *

Dion Simmons Grier in a scene from “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road” at the York Theatre Company (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Some numbers in the show are performed very well.  (And every cast member gets some chance to shine, as either a singer or dancer.)  I greatly enjoyed what Dion Simmons Grier did with “Georgia on My Mind.”  I like the emotion he brought to the song.  If there were a cast album, that’s a track I’d play again and again.  And “A World of No Goodbyes” is a wise choice—it’s not a famous Carmichael song but it’s a very good one and adds a touch of gravitas.

Danielle Herbert, Markcus Blair, and Cory Lingner have great fun with “Heart and Soul.”  That number works on all levels—the arrangement, the energy, the execution.  Kudos to all involved!

“Lazy River” (sung by Cory Lingner and Sara Esty) is a treat. “Bessie Couldn’t Help It” (sung by Grier and Mike Schwitter) certainly works.  And Herbert was terrific on “Come Easy, Go Easy Love.”   I enjoyed everything she did in the show—a good, self-assured singer with personality. But I sure wish she were provided with a better arrangement of “How Little We Know”; that’s one of several fine numbers in the production that, unfortunately, are undermined by undistinguished arrangements.

“Blue Orchids”—treated in this show as almost a throw-away—is another memorable song that deserves a better arrangement.  Both Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller—unsurpassed at romantic ballads—had memorable hits when they recorded this song.  But the beauty of this ballad is lost in this production.  If you can’t do justice to “Blue Orchids,” cut the number. Or cut some other numbers so you can lavish a little more time and care and attention on “Blue Orchids” and make it mean something.

There’s more to “The Rhumba Jumps” and “Sing Me a Swing Song” than what we get in this show’s treatments of those spirited songs.  A good small-band swing arranger (like, say, Dan Barrett or Dan Levinson) would know how to make more of those numbers.  This show ought to give us versions that are as much fun to listen to as the best Swing Era performances of those songs.

I enjoyed the handling of “Lyin’ to Myself.”  And hearing a bit of trumpeting on that number (famously recorded by Louis Armstrong) was most welcome.

I especially loved the way the song “Stardust” was treated.  It’s showcased very well twice in the production.  Early in the show (in the 1920s segment), it’s sung moderately brightly (befitting the era and Carmichael’s original conception of the melody) by Mike Schwitter, the only number in the show performed with a ukelele, and a very nice change of pace.

Later, near the end of the show, “Stardust” is brilliantly combined with “Skylark” in what, for me, was the high point of the show.  Yurman’s arrangement here was just great, as was the staging. And singers Sara Esty and Kayla Jenerson served up both of those challenging songs quite well. Combining the two songs worked gloriously. As I watched and listened, I thought, “My god, how can anyone be asked to follow this?”

And I almost wished the show had ended right then and there, because the two numbers that followed the “Stardust”/”Skylark” sequence, although interesting, were definitely anti-climactic.   But it really was wonderful to hear “Stardust” and “Skylark” combined like that.   (When I got home, I happily sang “Skylark” several times to the deer gathering on the grass, as I fed them apples and pumpkin.  It’s such an astonishingly good song, I didn’t want to see it go.)

The company of “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road” at the York Theatre Company (Phot credit: Carol Rosegg)

If I may offer one or two minor suggestions to consider… If you wanted to fine-tune the excellent “Stardust’”/”Skylark” sequence, I think slowing the tempo just a tad more might give the sequence  even greater emotional  impact. It’s worth trying.

And “Stardust”—which is a such an outstanding song that we won’t mind hearing more of it—might be set up better by including a hint of the most successful recording of it, Artie Shaw’s (with its masterful solos by Shaw on clarinet and Billy Butterfield on trumpet).  When Billboard polled the nation’s disc jockeys in 1953, asking them to name the all-time greatest songs in American popular music, “Stardust” was voted the number-one song.  When Billboard polled the nation’s disc jockeys in 1956, asking them to name their all-time favorite records, Artie Shaw’s recording of “Stardust” was voted the number-one record.  (Two other recordings of “Stardust” also made the list of the all-time top-30 records—the only song represented more than once among the top 30.)

Shaw, whom I profiled in two books, told me that that superb song brought out the best in him and his sidemen.  Both he and Billy Butterfield knew their oft-imitated solos were instant classics—as close to perfection as they ever came as musicians.

If you had a trumpeter quote or paraphrase Butterfield’s lyrical, dramatic solo in this show, you’d not only add beauty to the show, you’d add a wonderfully evocative touch for those who loved Shaw’s classic recording.  You need not play a complete note-for-note re-creation to succeed, (Billy Butterfield played that song until he died. Towards the end he could no longer reach the climactic high E-flat; he played “Stardust” using fewer, lower notes–but he still conveyed the same poetic feeling.)

There were plenty of other intriguing Carmichael songs from “Manhattan Rag” to “Baltimore Oriole” that I wish could have been included in this show.  But when you’re representing a prolific composer, you can’t include everything.  And some difficult choices need to be made; some excellent songs will have to be cut from the current production to make it work better as a show.

If I may make one more suggestion that I wish the creators of this revue would consider… the whole production feels rather safe and comfortable and conventional.  When Carmichael himself spoke or wrote of the years when he established himself, he conjured up a scene that was messier, rowdier, more daring, and exhilarating than what we’re currently seeing on the stage.  They were rebellious young artists taking risks, trying to live life to the fullest, making their own rules.  He’d describe the old days in a stream-of-consciousness style that mixed everything together with a kind of joyous abandon—breaking free of molds in music, breaking racial barriers, experiencing passion, marijuana (which Hoagy and his friends called “muggles,” he said), bootleg hooch, and much more.  I wish more of that rebellious spirit could be brought into a show celebrating Carmichael.

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