Lyrics & Lyricists
Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years
92nd Street Y, NYC, January 22, 2017
Some songs are recognized as among tops in the American Songbook—classics that seem to have been popular forever. Examples include “Stormy Weather,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Over the Rainbow.” These particular numbers have something else in common: their melodies all were written by Harold Arlen.
These and other Arlen songs were the features of 2017’s opening show of Lyrics & Lyricists, a series that, since it was inaugurated in 1970 by Broadway conductor Maurice Levine, has been presenting a panorama of American popular music. While the series usually focuses on the wordsmiths, the spotlight for this season’s premier presentation shone on a composer: Arlen.
Collaborating onstage in a snappily-paced, delightful evening were singers/dancers Stephen DeRosa, Erin Dilly, Catherine Russell and Nathaniel Stampley, with cabaret artist Klea Blackhurst serving triple duty as performer, bright-style narrator/hostess and, with musicologist Robert Kimball, the program’s co-artistic director. Behind them—literally filling the stage—was the powerhouse musical ensemble of Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks.
Arlen worked with a variety of lyricists whose work was included in the show. Ted Koehler was the writer for such numbers as “Get Happy,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “As Long As I Live,” “Let’s Fall in Love” and, sung movingly by Russell, the one and only “Stormy Weather.” Another Arlen partner-in-song was E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, whose lyrics included “Down with Love,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady” (a Groucho Marx stand-out)) and the enduring songs from The Wizard of Oz. Other Arlen collaborators included Billy Rose (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”) and Ira Gershwin (“Fun to Be Fooled” and “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block”—songs that also included Harburg as co-lyricist).
A film clip from 1926 showed Arlen at the piano, performing his tune “Buffalo Rhythm” backed by the band, The Buffalodians. The clip, however, was silent; the music was played live on stage, in sync, by The Nighthawks.
It’s a Lyrics & Lyricists tradition that the final song of the program is sung by the audience. Custom prevailed, as the theater rang with everyone joining in on “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”