There were a couple of reasons that made me want to see the new bio-musical, “Chaplin.” The first was personal since my friend’s grandson, Ian, was expecting to play the piano in the show’s orchestra. I also learned that his real aim one day was to be the conductor for a Broadway musical. Another reason for wanting to see “Chaplin” was because it was about Hollywood’s only successful actor-director-writer-producer-composer ever. When you think of Chaplin, the iconic performer, I bet what comes to your mind, as it did to mine, was mustaches, derby hats, big shoes, and baggy trousers – yes, the Little Tramp. When I read Charlie Chaplin’s biography, I found myself not only greatly interested in his genius but equally interested in Chaplin’s relationship with women, from his unstable mother to his first three wives and certainly, most interestingly, to the last marriage with Oona O’Neill. Don’t ask my why, but I was happy to learn that at age 53, Chaplin found complete happiness with Eugene O’Neill’s 18-year-old daughter (the great tragic playwright of the century was infuriated when his daughter eloped with Chaplin, especially since Eugene was also 53 years old). Another intriguing fact is that Chaplin and Oona had eight children. What a man! Oh, to get back to the show about the undeniable genius, an immensely likable star in the title role is a relative newcomer, Rob McClure. The actor is a small wonder as the Little Tramp. But another thought went through my constantly inquiring mind: why go to see an impersonation, great as it is, if one can watch the real thing in Chaplin’s films? This musical isn’t all song and dance. It is slow-paced and sentimental – not the worst musical I’ve ever seen.
When I was just becoming a teenager, there was a new Broadway musical opening called “Carousel,” and one of its many hits was a song that tortured me the rest of my life, especially in my teen years. The song? “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Enough said. And who wrote those lyrics? My favorite lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, who was, besides being a librettist, a theatrical producer and theater director of musicals for almost 40 years. Many of his songs are standard repertoire for singers and jazz musicians. Hammerstein’s collaborators wrote the music, among them Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and, of course, Richard Rodgers. The lyricist didn’t start out pursuing theater since his father felt that that was not an honorable profession (the general feeling about show business in that era). As a result, he attended Columbia University (my alma mater), but later quit law school to pursue theater once his father passed on. Hammerstein’s most successful collaboration was with Richard Rodgers (“Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” as well as many more). He changed the Broadway musical by making the story central to it – not the songs or the stars. When my friend Phyllis Levine was preparing a speech about tolerance, I made a suggestion that she quote Hammerstein’s lyrics from “South Pacific.” Here they are: “You’ve got to be taught/To hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year/It’s got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught./You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade/You’ve got to be carefully taught./You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” As you can imagine, Phyllis’ speech was a great success. And not to worry – Phyllis spoke these wonderful words, she didn’t sing. Sigh of relief! If you like lyrics or just love reading them, there’s a fascinating book, “Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.” It includes an interesting preface by Stephen Sondheim. The book, edited by his son, lists all Hammerstein’s lyrics written for several composers. Born in 1895, we lost him in 1960, but his songs will live forever.
Have you heard about The High Line? Just in case you’re not aware, it’s a public park built on an historic rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side. Founded in 1999 by community residents, it’s a non-profit conservancy and quite an extraordinary place. I see it as a miracle above Manhattan. There’s beautiful greenery and art pieces here and there – a great walking path between neighborhoods – lush and gracious, serene and unhurried (if you’re there at the right time). Come to think of it, it’s an amazing use of space that was no longer in use and it’s above the rat race. If there’s a bit of voyeur in you, you can walk for free and look into the windows of all the apartments and possible see the people who are lucky enough to be able to live there. Open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, the public can also enjoy it for picnicking, sunbathing, and/or simply people-watching. Tourists from all over the world have found The High Line, which will eventually snake through more than 20 blocks. It’s another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners. It’s a kind of attraction that is enticing: a public park above the hubbub, a contemplative space where nature softens the city’s abrasiveness. The High Line is a high hit.
I became aware of Jonathan Schwartz many years ago when I went to Michael’s Pub on East 55th Street in New York City (an East Side institution, it closed – boohoo – in 1996). He was starring at the cabaret and it seemed as if he was attempting to emulate his idol, Frank Sinatra. I enjoyed his singing but enjoyed his knowledgeable patter even more. Now I have found him again, this time on the radio (I like the radio mainly because I can rest my eyes and let my imagination fly). His deeply resonant voice and his almost pedantic patter can be heard on WNYC F.M. 93.9 every weekend. He has two four-hour-long broadcasts Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at noon. His programs seem extemporaneous and his musical knowledge unlimited. Schwartz’s goal appears to be to keep what he refers to as “America’s Greatest Popular Music” alive. His personal knowledge of songwriters and singers and jazz artists is huge. I suppose it’s because he was brought up by his talented dad, musician/composer Arthur Schwartz, who wrote “Dancing in the Dark” and “That’s Entertainment,” among many other wonderful songs. Son Jonathan champions young artists who carry on the tradition of the Great American Songbook, aiming to keep that music alive against the onslaught of rock-and-roll. The well-informed personality has been a constant presence on New York radio for 40 years. He himself has recorded three albums as a singer and authored five books. In my eyes, he’s a New York gem – even though I enjoy him in New Jersey.
You can e-mail June Sturz at firstname.lastname@example.org.