Charles Strouse (1928-) has composed music for 14 musicals (garnering three Tony Awards) and five films, written two orchestral works and an opera. Joining raconteur/vocalist Harvey Granat for the first in a new season of Songs and Stories, Strouse proves to be quick witted and warm. Today our host is suffering from gravel throat and can’t sing. Three guests and the knowledgeable audience fill in.
Having studied with Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger, the composer’s classical background might’ve led him into other arenas. Like many musicians just out of school, however, Strouse played at cocktail lounges and accompanied singers. In 1949, he met lyricist Lee Adams at a cocktail party and a new seed was planted.
The collaborators’ first musical, 1960’s Tony Award winning Bye Bye Birdie, was inspired by Elvis Presley joining the army. It seems Strouse was fascinated by the rock n’roll icon. “In fact, I don’t do imitations, but…” we’re treated to a five second, head-shoulder-jerk-and-wince parroting Presley. It’s pretty good. The role, he confides, was written for Jack Lemmon, but no one knew how to get to him. (Dick Van Dyke made a success of the opportunity.) An easy, bouncy version of “A Lot of Livin to Do” is rendered by those attending. Strouse looks tickled pink so many know the lyrics.
From All American we hear “Once Upon a Time” as performed by its composer, now at sotto piano. The song is immensely moving. “I had just broken up with my first love when I wrote it and she was very much on my mind – still is every time I sing it,” he recalls. Granat asks whether the composer is tough on himself. His response is reflexively confident, yet today’s guest shares that he takes poor reviews personally, even after a lifetime of success.
Based on the Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy was next on the boards. It starred Sammy Davis, Jr. as the rough-cut, aspiring boxer, Joe. Stephen Carl McCasland, Strouse’s Assistant and a Producer/Director/Vocalist in his own right, performs “Night Song” accompanied by the composer. Piano is rich and layered, vocal soars. “Now he’s gonna ask for more money,” his boss quips.
Stephen Carl McCasland, Pauline Levitan, Cheryl Segall
Strouse’s second Tony Award arose from 1970’s Applause, the musicalization of cinema’s All About Eve and arguably Lauren Bacall’s Third Act. When the legend’s contract was up, Ann Baxter, the film’s Eve, took the role. Strouse again sits at the piano delivering “Applause” with jaunty, iconoclastic phrasing.
The New York Times estimates that his next venture, 1977’s Annie (lyrics – Martin Charnin), Tony #3, is produced 700-900 times a year. “Your score has brought happiness to hundreds and hundreds of people,” Granat comments. “You go into music because you love it. If it catches on, that’s a gift from God,” Strouse reflects. Two songs from the beloved show are performed: “Tomorrow” by vocalist Cheryl Segall and “Maybe” by Pauline Levitan. Segall imbues her number with palpable conviction. Levitan has a lovely voice, but poignant characterization is absent.
A Question about Strouse’s experience with Alan Jay Lerner on Dance A Little Closer elicits “I’ve worked with a couple of characters in my life, Alan Jay Lerner being three of them.” We close with Rags (lyrics-Stephen Schwartz) which inexplicably closed in four days. (I saw it and really liked the piece. A new version is being mounted at The Goodspeed Opera House – details below.) “I have a good feeling about America…I daresay there’s no one in this room who didn’t come from Europe or Asia…we’re bonded by humanity, Strouse comments apropos of the timely revival. The room applauds.
“I salute you as a composer and your humanity as a human being,” Granat says in closing. It’s been a treat.
Photos by David Rosen
Songs and Stories with Harvey Granat
The Music of Charles Strouse
David Lahm- Piano
Special Guest Charles Strouse
Vocalists Stephen Carl McCasland, Pauline Levitan, Cheryl Segall
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
Mr. Strouse’s upcoming: A new version of the terrific 1986 musical Rags (lyrics Stephen Schwartz; Revised Book by David Thompson) will play Goodspeed Opera House October 6, December 10, 2017
The Second Act Series offers a concert of 1981’s Bring Back Birdie (sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) at 54/Below November 1, 2017