Marissa Mulder: Swingin’ On a Star: The Songs of Jimmy Van Heusen

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Marissa Mulder

Swingin’ On a Star: The Songs of Jimmy Van Heusen

The Cutting Room, NYC, June 2, 2024

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Marissa Mulder

Frank Sinatra said he’d be Jimmy Van Heusen if he could only pass the physical. The two came up together and were best friends. Marissa Mulder began “Come Fly with Me” (lyric by Sammy Cahn) brightly with swinging clarity. She leaned out to the audience extending the invitation.

Jimmy Van Heusen (born Edward Chester Babcock 1913 –1990), composed 1,000 songs from 1938 to 1975; 85 were recorded by Frank Sinatra. In later days, when a Paramount contract kept him from collaborating with anyone but the severely alcoholic Johnny Burke, he wrote using pseudonyms. Van Heusen (he renamed himself after the shirt company) scribbled ideas on any and all available surfaces.

At Syracuse University, Jimmy met Harold Arlen’s brother Jerry, with whom he began to write songs for the Cotton Club Revue. Their first contract produced a sweet, easy ballad, “The Dreamer in Me”—”Please be sympathetic when I get poetic.” “Darn That Dream” (lyric by Eddie DeLange) followed in Mulder’s signature breathy delivery. Neither diminished nor obscured, she sighed into it. “Darn” was actually imbued with meaning rather than just a note. “Bless it too/Without that dream/I never would have you” she sang, her eyes momentarily closed. This is not an artist who shuts us out.

“Imagination” was composed by Van Heusen when he was an adolescent for his girlfriend at the time. Johnny Burke came up with the lyric. A delicate guitar (Lance Conrad) and muffled bass (Phil Ambuel) made it dreamy. Van Heusen and Burke were known as “the gold-dust twins” in Hollywood. “Swinging on a Star” from the film Going My Way won an Oscar, the first of four for Van Heusen. Mulder sang it with a twinkle in her eye.

The partners wrote for 23 Bing Crosby films. During World War II Van Heusen rose at the crack of dawn to work as a test pilot for Lockheed (under his birth name), and then went to the studio to put in hours as Van Heusen. “Who the hell is going to hire a guy knowing he could be killed before a movie is finished?” Burke asked, keeping the secret. Mulder presented three of their songs, including the rarely performed “Sunday, Monday, or Always”: “Won’t you tell me when/We will meet again/Sunday, Monday, or always.” Mulder was doleful; music director Jon Weber caressed the piano keys with feeling and finesse.

“Jimmy had his pick of all the great lyricists. He didn’t try too hard,” the vocalist notes. Among the songs he wrote with Johnny Mercer was a gauzy “I Thought About You.” As she sang it, Mulder barely moved except for an occasional arm gesture; her focus was on the meaning of the lyric. She had a way of connecting phrases with sustained focus and emotion.

“Burke wrote perhaps his most devastating lyric when he was really ill,” Mulder stated. “Here’s That Rainy Day,” accompanied by Conrad’s shimmering guitar, was from the short-lived Carnival of Flanders, which, like other Broadway efforts that had Van Heusen songs, bombed. Cloaked in melancholy sentiment, Mulder was entirely believable.

In 1953, Van Heusen teamed up with Sammy Cahn. The collaborators wrote for a musical production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in which Frank Sinatra played the Stage Manager. Wilder stipulated that the show would be performed only once—live. Here, its title song arrived like an old valentine: “You will lose your heart/in this our 2 x 4 town.” As Mulder set the scene, Weber painted with the music: “Look to your heart/When there are words to say/And never leave your love unspoken.” Another collaboration with Cahn, “Love and Marriage”(lyric by Cahn) and “Personality” (lyric by Burke) embodied Van Heusen’s upbeat temperament. The latter began a cappella with only percussion. Mulder gently shifted her hips and flirted: “She knew how to use her—perso-nal-i-tee.” The composer’s buddy Angie Dickinson said, “You would not pick him over Clark Gable any day, but his magnetism was irresistible.”

“Come Dance with Me” was classy; it had a Latin swing suggestive of a country-club orchestration. Mulder swayed, arms out. The drums (Ahmad Johnson) grooved: “Come on, dance with me/Romance with me on a crowded floor…ooo la, la, la la.” “Call Me Irresponsible” and “All the Way” were both Oscar winners. The first emerged casually and coolly, hand in hand with a lilting guitar. Picture Sinatra’s hat down over an eye. “It’sssss undeniably true,” Mulder sang, savoring the thought. During “All the Way,” she seemed to roll out phrases like ribbons. (The lyrics for all of these songs were by Cahn.)

“But Beautiful” (lyric by Burke), accompanied only by Weber’s spellbinding piano, floated us out on a cloud. “I have to believe that at his core, he was an incurable romantic,” Mulder said. The composer did eventually marry at age 56, and his bride outlived him. Jimmy Van Heusen is buried near the Sinatra family in Desert Memorial Park. His gravestone reads “Swinging on a Star.”

“He played piano beautifully, wrote gorgeously poignant songs about romance, he had a fat wallet, he flew his own plane; he never went home alone.” (James Kaplan about Jimmy Van Heusen in Frank: The Voice (2010).

Marissa Mulder has an aptitude for swing, and she never sounded like a typical lounge singer. The meaning of the lyrics was always paramount. When her voice vibrantly fanned out, it was not stressed. She knew when to hold and when to fold. Weber’s arrangements were skillful and appealing. My only caveat is that the terrifically researched patter needed to be edited.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.

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