SAMMY CAHN: WORDS AND MUSIC
at the Halsted Theatre Centre
There are many more words in Sammy Cahn: Words and Music than there is music, and that’s just fine by me. Not that there’s anything wrong with what music there is–composed by Cahn’s erstwhile songwriting partners, including Jule Styne, Jimmy Van Heusen, Saul Chaplin, and Nicholas Brodszky, and lushly played by pianist Harper MacKay. But though Cahn’s songs from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s remain listenable and likable evocations of a more innocent and more confident era, it’s Sammy Cahn the schmoozer and storyteller who makes this performance at the Halsted Theatre Centre well worth a visit.
Cahn is history on the hoof–a Jewish kid from, as he puts it, “a one-syllable neighborhood” on New York’s Lower East Side who went on to write “songs with five-syllable words” (“Call me irresponsible, call me unreliable, throw in undependable too . . .”). Unlike lyricists Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart, whose works for the Broadway stage have left a deeper and more personal impression on their listeners, Cahn worked primarily for the movie industry. Yet he has remained the vaudeville-struck youngster who started out playing the fiddle in a New York society band during the days of the lindy hop and blackface singers. In a deceptively casual, highly polished two-act monologue, he brings those days back to life in the wry deadpan and broad vowels he picked up as a kid. “If I’d been born in 1900 instead of 1913,” Cahn tells his audience, “I’d be George Burns today.”
Cahn’s show, nimbly staged by Paul Blake, is full of wonderful anecdotes about show business before, during, and after World War II. Though the stories are obviously shaped to suit his own self-image, he treats himself and his work as irreverently as anything else: his stories about taming temperamental composers playfully acknowledge Cahn’s own idiosyncratic personality as well. He assumes the pose of the innocent savant observer–sort of Huck Finn in Hollywood–as he recalls director Michael Curtiz physically pushing band singer Doris Day around a room to get her to loosen up for her first screen test, or Frank Sinatra showing up for a “breakfast” meeting in his bathrobe at five in the afternoon. Dropped names are part of the attraction in a show like this; at the matinee I attended, the mostly middle-aged audience nodded approvingly at mentions of Sinatra, Harry James, Jimmie Lunceford, Harry Cohn, and Ann Miller, but saved their loudest “oooh” for Mario Lanza.
Cahn isn’t shy about singing his own songs. Though he doesn’t have much of a voice, he does have a terrific way of phrasing a lyric simply, directly, and honestly. These are virtues in his writing as well; if tunes such as “Come Fly With Me,” “All the Way,” “High Hopes,” “Pocketful of Miracles,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is),” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” don’t have the rich sense of imagery the best work of Hammerstein or Hart does, they do display intelligence, narrative clarity, and a very fine sense of fitting the right words to the right musical rhythms–as well as Cahn’s unique gift for using repetition to sound simple but not simpleminded. Only the best lyricists, such as Cahn, really know how to underwrite a lyric in order to leave room for the music to do its job. Take, for example, “Three Coins in the Fountain,” with its six-word bridge (“Which one will the fountain bless?”) stated twice without variation while the melody varies just enough to drive home an idea without beating it to death.
That’s real craftsmanship–and Cahn is happy to talk about the craft, as well as the business, of songwriting. He’s also happy to share the stage with more vocally gifted singers. Alisa Gyse, who was a wonderful Deena in the touring company of Dreamgirls that played the Chicago Theatre a few seasons back, unleashes a sizzling soul sound that’s all the more stunning for its contrast to her sleek and restrained persona. Anne Tofflemire is the white band-singer ingenue of every war-era movie musical–her delivery of Cahn’s gorgeous, little-known torch song “I’ll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him” is beautiful. Kevin Anderson combines Ken-doll good looks with a spine-tingling tenor to win the heart of every parent in the house, but he’s not afraid to loosen up a bit and fill in for La Verne Andrews in a trio rendition of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.”
But as good as these kids are, they can’t help but seem callow next to somebody with the past, and the presence, of Cahn. It’s both an honor and a joy to be in the same room with an old pro like him–which is why it would be a shame if this show failed to reach audiences other than the geriatric nostalgia-wallowers who constitute Cahn’s most reliable following. “You’ve either got or you haven’t got style,” goes a lyric in one of his songs. He’s got it–all the way.
THE BIG BABY
Different Drummer Music Theatre
at the Edgewater Theater
I’ve seldom seen a show with as elaborate a promotional concept as The Big Baby, now having its world premiere in the hands of Different Drummer Music Theatre. Since the show is a satire of big-business mores, the program is styled as a corporate newsletter; instead of tickets, the audience receives “visitor’s passes”; and members of the press, at least, were handed plastic pacifiers as they walked into the theater.
Well, more than one corporation has used promotional gimmickry to try to save a bad product. But Different Drummer, I suspect, doesn’t really have the funds or personnel to squander on hype. From what I saw on the stage of the Edgewater Theater Center last week, director Kristin Overn and her troupe should have focused on making the material work, not on trying to sell it.
Written by librettist Robert Sheely and composer Gary Rue–whose connection to director Overn seems to have started several years ago in Saint Paul, Minnesota–The Big Baby comes off as a failed hybrid of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the movie Big. Alice Lilac, an ambitious corporate-wellness specialist at the BabyCo baby-foods company, hypnotizes a handsome young janitor named Ted in an attempt to cure his stutter. Instead, Ted regresses to a preverbal, infantile state. Alice and her cutthroat boyfriend Dan try to educate Ted back to at least a grade-school level so they can rehypnotize him back to normal. Meanwhile, they disguise Ted as a junior executive. In that guise he catches the eye of BabyCo’s president Jane, who is just starting to experience the desire to get married and have children (“My biologic clock / Must have finally gone ticktock,” she sings in a typically banal lyric). Ted also wins the affection of Jane’s father, the blustery founder and chairman of the company–enough so that when Jane mistakes one of Ted’s kiddie games for a corporate strategy, the whole company goes along for what proves a disastrous ride.
There’s nothing really wrong with this story from the point of view of workability. Yes, it’s stupid, but stupid can work–if the authors have fun with that fact. Here, the cartoonish premise sinks under laborious lyrics, melodically dull music, sexist stereotyping (in its portrayal of businesswomen as frustrated, overbearing mamas–at least the playmates in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying had some personality), inept pacing, and alternately stiff and overwrought acting. The only exception to the last category is James Shellard, a recent transplant from Ohio, who plays Ted. Shellard performs his ludicrous role with a good, if not perfect, balance of exaggeration and honesty–whether he’s toddling around in diapers or hamming it up in his boy’s impersonation of a corporate shark. I won’t go so far as to say Shellard makes this show worth seeing–he’ll surely turn up elsewhere in better circumstances soon enough–but he does at least make the show tolerable. As for the rest of it, The Big Baby makes a big mess.