As someone who considers himself to be somewhat of an aficionado (aka “nerd”) with regards to the Great American Songbook, I recently watched the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic “Till The Clouds Roll By.” I found it to be predictably formulaic and clunky, but quite star-studded, and oh, those great songs!
Kern’s first hit (written as a 20 year-old in 1905) is performed in the film by a saucy 21 year-old Angela Lansbury: “How’d You Like To Spoon With Me?” For its time, it’s just as suggestive as anything you’re likely to hear today. I hadn’t thought about that song in decades, and I was immediately and intensely brought back to my first encounter with it. (Cue the blurring/distorting of the picture and underscore with the mysterious Whole Tone scale):
While in my early twenties, I had the wonderful opportunity to be the Music Director of the Atlantic Theater Company for the two summers (1980-81) that they spent in Barnstable, MA on idyllic Cape Cod. I was party to tremendous amounts of drama (only some of it was on stage) and gained tremendous insight as to how theatrical productions get mounted. Aside from myself and the interns, virtually everyone from the Company had attended the Yale Drama School.
One of the Main Stage productions was Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest.” As you may be aware, this show is not a musical, so my involvement was minimal: play the piano for the opening, closing and for a few scene changes. Piece of cake. Or, as they probably DON’T say in France, morceau de gateau. I should mention this important aspect of our production: It was cast with women playing the male roles and men playing the female roles. I know…..edgy, right? And one of the selections was the aforementioned “Spoon” song, which was my first (and only) opportunity to perform it.
As Opening Night loomed, the director approached me with a dastardly proposal: either sit at the piano for the entire show wearing basic pit black……or make my entrances and exits as needed if I was willing to cross-dress like the actors were doing. The rest of the time (about 90% of the show) I was free to chill out backstage (or wherever). What was a boy to do? For this one, it was an easy choice to take the Path of Least Resistance; for the first (and, thus far, last) time, I was hired to play the piano dressed as a woman. And I was quite the vision of beautyhood, too. The Costumer somehow came up with a pseudo-Victorian ensemble into which I could fit my 6’4″ frame, and I was good to go. I was happy to have the freedom to wander around during the time that I wasn’t needed, although I had to get used to walking up and down stairs in my full-length skirt. I remember sitting on the steps behind the theater, flirting with one of the interns. To any neighbors who may have spotted me, I belatedly apologize for any trauma that this sight may have caused. I looked like a character from an Edward Gorey story.
(SMOOTH SEGUE) Speaking of the delightfully eccentric Mr. Gorey, we were lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him that summer, as he was a Cape resident and we mounted a cabaret show based on his work: Gorey Stories. I visited my family in the Chicago suburbs before settling into the Cape for the summer, and I recited the names of our shows that season. “Edward Gorey!” my Aunt Carol said. “He was our neighbor in Wilmette. He used to cheat at Monopoly.” After taking advantage of the surprising chance to confront Mr. Gorey in person with this heinous accusation, he gave a little gasp and said “That is an absolute lie!” But he did say it with a twinkle in his eye, so who knows? Maybe there WERE some unsavory tactics involving St. James Avenue or Community Chest. We’ll never really know, will we?
Of course I have a lot of other memories from those two summers, but I’ll bore you with those some other time. Meanwhile, almost 40 years have elapsed since then. Holy steamed clams, Batman. These things happen, I guess.