What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

 

I love this song written by Frank Loesser in 1947.

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Apparently it was not created for a particular movie or show.

And Mr. Loesser thought that it was fine to sing it any time of the year — because it is about someone who is in the early stages of a romantic relationship who is thinking ahead…

I recorded it with Doug Hammer when I was putting together an hour-long program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricist and/or composers.

Mr. Loesser started off as a lyricist, collaborating with Jule Styne (with whom he co-wrote “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You, Baby”), and Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he co-wrote “Heart and Soul), and other composers in New York and in California.

During WWII he joined the military and helped to create original musical shows which could easily be produced with minimal costumes, props and scenery at military bases and camps all around the globe as a way to boost the morale of the troops at home and abroad.

It was during this time that he became more confident about composing the music to go with his lyrics — and one of first hit songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics was “Praise the Lord and Pass The Ammunition.”

After WWII his career as a songwriter gained momentum.

He wrote songs for the hit musical WHERE’S CHARLEY? — which gave us the standard “Once In Love With Amy” sung by Ray Bolger (who had starred as The Scarecrow in the movie version of THE WIZARD OF OZ many years earlier).

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Then he wrote songs for the musical GUYS AND DOLLS, which was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1950 and which — almost seventy years later — continues to be performed all around the USA and beyond…

He expanded from writing lyrics and music to writing the libretto (script) as well for his masterwork THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, which was as much an opera as it was a Broadway show.

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His other shows include GREENWILLOW — starring a young Anthony Perkins, which was not a hit — and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT TRYING, which was a hit and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

He also wrote songs — including “Inchworm” and “Thumbelina” for a successful movie about Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye.

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And he won an Academy award in 1949 for his song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he had originally written as a fun duet for him and his first wife, Lynn to perform at parties.

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She was apparently very upset when he sold “their song” to MGM FOR a movie called NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER starring Esther Williams.

In recent years this song has generated some controversy since the lyrics involve a man (called “the wolf” in the original sheet music) seducing a woman (called “the mouse” in the original sheet music) using persistence, charm, and alcohol.

Since relatively few books have been written about Mr. Loesser, his daughter Susan Loesser penned a book called A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life.

It is very candid and informative about Mr. Loesser — who does not sound like he was  the easiest or the happiest guy to work with. In fact he infamously slapped one of the original leads in GUYS AND DOLLS, Isabel Bigley, during rehearsals because he did not like the way she was interpreting one of his songs.

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However, he was extremely supportive of up-and-coming songwriters and helped nurture the careers of Meredith Willson (THE MUSIC MAN), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (THE PAJAMA GAME and DAMN YANKEES), and even Stephen Sondheim, who received a very supportive and empathetic letter from Frank after one of Sondheim’s early musicals, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, closed after only nine performances.

Mr. Loesser was also a lifelong three-pack-a-day smoker, and died in 1969 at age 59 from lung cancer.

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Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

As another year — and another decade — draws to a close, I would like to thank everyone who has visited my blog during the past six years to read and listen.

And the wonderful photographers whose work has graced my blog posts.

Also all the folks with whom I have made music during this past year!

This next decade is a make-or-break one for human beings here on planet earth.

We have ten years — or less!!! — to change the way we consume resources before climate change will swing more and more out of balance in un-imaginable, catastrophic, and un-fixable ways.

I have no idea what a contemporary human society which consumes only sustainable/renewable amounts of food and water and fuel and natural resources would look like.

But I deeply hope we are all able to WAKE UP and STOP CONSUMING fossil fuels and plastic items and unnecessary consumer goods and air travel and vacations-to-far-away-places, and car travel, and excessive food and water so that future generations of beings — human and otherwise — can exist on this lovely planet.

Many of us have somehow been raised to feel we are entitled to consume/enjoy/waste natural resources simply because we want to consume/enjoy/waste them — with no consideration or reflection about how our choices and actions affect the larger web of sustainable life here on planet earth.

This Christmas I gave copies of several books — The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Hidden Life of Trees, The Inner Life of Animals, and The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben — to various family members.

Overstory

I was slightly ambivalent to buy and give books (made from dead trees, after all…) about how amazing and wise and generous and precious trees are to life here on planet earth.

But I am hoping that sharing these books will help with the process of AWAKENING all of us human beings to the extraordinary web of life — of which we are merely one (albeit an often-times astoundingly ignorant and destructive) strand.

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

I will be hanging out with family in upstate New York this New Year’s Eve.

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I learned yesterday from my older sister that the hens started laying more eggs as soon as the days started getting longer here in the northern hemisphere.

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How amazingly calibrated to subtle changes in light they are!

And I bore witness to the sheeps’ concern about getting their fair share of the grain which my sisters feed them each evening.

I learned from a television program earlier this year that a wide variety of animals — not just sheep — are very aware of what IS and is NOT equitable.

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Here we are walking the sheep to a temporary pasture area in another field.

The snow has almost all melted due to several days of non-freezing weather including rain…

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Here is one of my nephews testing fate by walking on a previously frozen stream…

Tomorrow night after evening chores are done, we will drive to the next town and cook a small feast with cousins.

Then we will play ukuleles, sing, and reflect upon the past year.

What are YOU doing New Year’s Eve?

If I Loved You…

If I Loved You…

 

Rodgers&Hammerstein

Today’s post is inspired by the act of collaboration.

Theater is all about collaboration — as are many forms of music.

I have been part of a musical collaboration with singer Bobbi Carrey for almost 20 years.

The song at the beginning of this blog post — “If I Loved You” — was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers for their musical Carousel.

Both Hammerstein and Rodgers had achieved tremendous success working with other collaborators before they joined forces during WWII to create the musical Oklahoma! 

Following the triumph of Oklahoma! they rose to new heights, co-creating a new musical every couple of years — interspersed with producing plays and musicals (such as Annie Get Your Gun) created by others.

And as their extraordinary list of hit shows — including South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music — expanded, they also devoted a considerable amount of time to overseeing touring companies, movie adaptations, and revivals of their work.

It was an extraordinary creative and business collaboration — the fruits of which will continue to be harvested  and celebrated for decades to come!

Collaboration can be a mysterious process — and theirs was not without its challenges.

But they persevered, remained respectful of each other’s gifts, and left an astounding body of work for the rest of us to savor for decades to come.

Pianist/composer/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded “If I Loved You” — one of their most beautiful ballads — for a CD we put together with exquisite arrangement input (both vocal and instrumental) from Michael Callahan.

Mike wrote the cello part on this recording of “If I Loved You,” for example.

My collaboration with Bobbi, too, has included a variety of challenges — and we have also respectfully persevered

Right now, due to a variety of factors, our collaboration is in a fallow period.

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Mike is busy being a music professor at Michigan State as well as an enthusiastic husband and father.

Doug’s career as a composer, producer and touring musician — in addition to being a devoted husband and father of two terrific sons — has meant that he is less available to perform with singers (although regular readers/listeners of this blog know that he is still willing to make music together in his wonderful home studio on the north shore of Boston).

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Bobbi was working for a while in various parts of Asia — with a home base in Kuala Lumpur.

And I — now that I am making a very modest living as a singer, songwriter and teacher — am (somewhat paradoxically) less available to collaborate with Bobbi than when I had a full-time, non-musical day job.

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Blessedly, recording technology exists so that all of the collaboration we did together has not evaporated without a trace.

 

Here’s a version of “The Little Things You Do Together” that we recorded with Doug playing piano plus a playful string arrangement by Mike.

Stephen Sondheim wrote it for the musical Company, and it paints a slightly different picture of love and marriage (another type of collaboration) than one might find in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show.

I have loved this song ever since my parents bought the cast album — which I listened to again and again and again as a child.

Sondheim knew both Rodgers and Hammerstein very well, having been unofficially adopted into the Hammerstein family when he was a teenager.

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Hammerstein became a role model and mentor for Sondheim as he, too, devoted himself to musical theater and songwriting.

And after Hammerstein died, Sondheim even collaborated as a lyricist with Richard Rodgers on a show called Do I Hear A Waltz? — along with one of Sondheim’s collaborators from West Side Story, librettist Arthur Laurents.

As someone who writes songs, I am always curious to learn more about the lives, practices, and habits of other songwriters.

I forget where I read it (maybe in one of Laurents’ great memoirs? or one of Sondheim’s terrific books about his own creative process?) but I was surprised to learn that Sondheim — with Laurents’ approval and support — transformed chunks of the dialogue  which Laurents wrote for early drafts of the West Side Story libretto into lyrics for certain songs in West Side Story.

And Laurents did not ask for co-credit on the lyrics for these songs,

It was simply part of their generous and respectful collaborative process.

Now Sondheim continues to support, nurture, encourage and inspire new generations of musical-theater-lovers. librettists, songwriters, and performers.

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Thank you to Sondheim and Laurents and Rodgers and Hammerstein — and all of their scenic, costuming, choreographic, lighting, casting, directorial, production, and performance collaborators — for leaving us an extraordinary body of songs and shows and ideas.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey, Doug Hammer, Mike Callahan, Jon Lupfer (who did the final mix of our CD at Q Division), Jonathan Wyner (who mastered our CD at M Works), and the musicians who played on it — Mark Carlsen (bass), Jane Hemenway (violin), Mike Monaghan (tenor sax and flute), Gene Roma (drums, percussion), Johann Soults (cello), and Kenny Wenzel (trombone).

Thank you to the internet for the photos of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Callahan, and Hammer.

Thank you to Paul Forlenza for the photos of Bobbi and me.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to this post!

What have YOUR experiences with collaboration taught you?

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

 

I have been blessed to make music with a terrific array of musicians during my musical life here in the Boston area.

In recent years I have worked mostly with pianists, including Doug HammerJoe Reid, Tom LaMark, Mark ShilanskyJoe Mulholland, Mike Callahan, and Steve Sweeting.

Joe Reid fortuitously called me four summers ago — a few months after I had been laid off from my day job of sixteen years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education — and asked if I might like to do a gig at a local retirement community with him.

This first gig — an hour of songs co-written by Harold Arlen plus a few stories about how they came to be written — has led to over a hundred performances together at public libraries, coffee houses, and retirement/assisted living communities with programs featuring the songs of Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and Hoagy Carmichael as well as a program of songs written (by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Styne/Sondheim, and others) for Ethel Merman to perform and a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

It has been a fruitful collaboration with no end in sight. Soon we’ll be debuting a one-hour program of songs co-written by Sammy Cahn, and 2018 will bring a program of songs written (by Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Fields and others) for Fred Astaire to perform.

But so far Joe Reid and I have no recorded evidence of our collaboration because we have not gone into a recording studio together…

Tom LaMark, Mark Shilansky, and Joe Mulholland have all been a pleasure to work with as well, but I similarly have no recordings to document our time together.

Mike Callahan is now a professor at Michigan State (and the person conducting and/or playing piano in the Pops concert clips on YouTube — which he also arranged and orchestrated!) I hope to make music with him some day in East Lansing…

Steve Sweeting currently lives in NYC; so I don’t get to make music with him as much as I would like. I have, however, included many recordings that he and I have made together in past blog posts.

Which brings me to Doug Hammer.

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Doug in his backyard with trees and water…

I do not remember exactly when I started working/playing with Doug.

It may have been when Steve Sweeting moved from Brighton, MA to the upper west side of Manhattan (in the mid-1990s?)

I was living as an au pair with a wonderful family on Spring Hill in Somerville, and Doug and his wife were living not far away on the Somerville/Cambridge border.

If I am remembering correctly, Doug had a very intimate but functional recording studio near the back of his apartment — as far away from the traffic of Beacon Street as possible.

He’d come from Chicago to Boston to study at Berklee, had played piano in other countries (which is how he met his stupendous wife, who is French), and then moved back to the Boston area to build a life as a pianist, composer, accompanist, engineer, and producer.

I think our paths crossed because he played with other singers I knew from having taken a class with Mike Oster in the South End.

Maybe some day  Doug can read this blog post and correct or fill in some of missing details…

In any case, I loved the way he played the piano and accompanied singers and built a life with his wife (who is an artist and graphic designer).

And I loved that I could walk or ride my bike to his home studio.

But as many wise texts remind us, life is full of changes.

Doug and his wife decided they needed more space and moved to a new home on the north shore of Boston — where Doug built a recording studio in the lower level of the house and where he and his wife began raising a family.

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Luckily it is accessible by public transportation (a surprisingly scenic bus ride from Haymarket T station), and Doug has also been kind enough to drive me to the nearest T stop, Wonderland, when the weather is horrible or the hour is late.

And his family is willing to be quiet upstairs when someone is recording downstairs with Doug.

There are two isolation booths to the right of the piano (which you can’t see in the photo above) which is where I usually stand when we are rehearsing/recording.

This is what Doug looks like when we are rehearsing/recording.

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One of the many great things about working/playing with Doug is that we are able to record all of our rehearsals in high fidelity.

He is not only a terrific, playful pianist, but he is also a super competent sound engineer and producer.

Over time he has invested in high-quality musical tools — a Schimmel grand piano, great microphones, and endlessly upgraded recording software and hardware (including an Apple computer which almost never misbehaves) — and he is able to switch effortlessly from being an engineer/producer to being a collaborative pianist/accompanist/co-creator and back again.

The songs at the beginning of this blog post are from a show we did called Will Loves Steve, which featured all songs written by people named Steve, Stephen or Stevie. “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is by Stevie Wonder, and “Everybody’s Got the Right” is by Stephen Sondheim from his extraordinary show Assassins.

They demonstrate how imaginative and improvisational Doug’s accompaniment often becomes when we work together.

He and I have been operating on a very simple guideline — familiar to improv comedians among other creative beings — for many years.

We always say “yes” to each other’s ideas.

Sometimes I have a specific set of images I share with Doug: “Let’s imagine that we are next to the Charles River and someone has started a fire in an old oil drum” or “We’re in a piney woods on the Cape, and a downy woodpecker is hopping up and down one of the tree trunks.”

Sometimes Doug starts playing something interesting on the piano while he is familiarizing himself with the sheet music for a particular song, and I encourage him to pause and hit the record button so that we can start with his fresh idea before either of us has had much time to think about it.

After each take we usually offer each other feedback about what we liked, what we might retain, and what we might like to explore further (“Let’s try going into a Latin feel on the bridge…” or “How about we do it twice as long so that you can take a solo and then we’ll end it with a triple tag at the end?”)

By the third or fourth take we often find ourselves in completely new and unexpected musical terrain.

Then we let that particular song rest and move on to the next one…

I don’t remember what ideas led us to this thoughtful version of “In My Life” by John Lennon.

I think we recorded it when we were rehearsing for a benefit concert (or maybe when we were rehearsing for a show I did at my old high school in Connecticut?)

Doug’s solo on this take is one of my favorite things that we have ever recorded together.

 

In the past decade Doug has been devoting more and more of his time and energy to composing and recording CDs of original piano — and increasingly orchestral —compositions.

You can click here for a link to his YouTube channel if you are curious.

Those of us who love to perform with him have been both excited to see his star as a solo artist rise and also sad because it means that he is less available to perform with singers…

Ahh, yes.

Life is full of changes.

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But so far he is willing to continue to work/play with singers in his recording studio.

Hurrah!

He and I are slowly but surely working on a CD of my original songs — which I write using a ukulele and are then transformed by his inspired piano playing.

I do not know when this project will be finished, but I am enjoying the process — one song, one session at a time.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for being born, pursuing a life in music, and working/playing with me on various undertakings for over two decades.

Thank you to Doug’s web site for the photos (probably taken by his talented wife) I have included in this blog.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another post!

Everybody Says Don’t…

One of my favorite Stephen Sondheim songs — “Everybody Says Don’t” (on the player embedded above this paragraph) — is from his first official flop, Anyone Can Whistle, which starred Angela Lansbury, Harry Guardino, and Lee Remick on Broadway in 1964 and ran for nine performances.

Among other topics, the plot explored the classic question of who is saner — the folks in a mental hospital or those who are not.

“Everybody Says Don’t” invites us to consider how we make choices.

Many of us make choices based on what other people say or think.

Sometimes this demonstrates a healthy respect for our shared values as human beings — and helps to keep our societies more, rather than less, civil.

Sometimes it’s a way to avoid saying or doing something important — something which might be utterly, uniquely, and profoundly why we are alive here and now on planet earth.

I might have stayed in my non-musical day job as a PR/development/events professional for another 16 years if I hadn’t been laid off.

The job offered me teamwork, camaraderie, shared purpose, a paycheck, respect from my peers, and daily surprises/challenges.

But it was not tapping very deeply into my musical soul.

Now I am devoted to making music for a living — as a performer, a songwriter, and a Music Together teacher.

The sentiment of “Everybody Says Don’t” reminds me of one of the guiding principles of Music Together — that anything a child chooses to do during class is fine and needs to be respected as part of their learning process/style.

A child’s caregiver may want them to sit still and “play” a drum — or a shaker egg, or a triangle, or a set of wooden sticks — in a particular manner.

But their way of soaking up the music in class may involve moving their bodies around the room, sitting in a corner (seemingly disconnected from everything happening in class), or bouncing up and down in someone’s lap.

As long as the child is not endangering themselves or hurting someone else in class, s/he is free to respond to the music in her/his own fashion — which may change from song to song and class to class.

I sometimes imagine the adult caregivers (moms, dads, nannies, grand mothers, grand fathers, au pairs, uncles, aunts and more) as younger versions of themselves — who may have been told somewhere along the line: “don’t sing so loudly,” or “don’t sing out of tune,” or worst of all, “don’t sing — just move your lips.”

One never knows what musical wounds people may be bringing into our classrooms…

As one teacher remarked at the end of a three day Music Together seminar, “90% of our job is showing up with a compassionate heart.”

“Everybody Says Don’t” also reminds me of a song I started writing a couple of years ago called “A Beating Heart.”

I was inspired by a conversation I heard between a new author, Amber Dermont,  and Terry Gross on NPR radio about Amber’s debut novel, The Starboard Sea.

Two of the characters in her novel invent the term, “the starboard sea” as a possible metaphor for one’s life mission — the direction one sails in order to discover an authentic, respectful, fulfilling life.

Or at least that’s how I have remembered the definition of “the starboard sea” — and incorporated it into my song.

If you have time to listen to either or both of these songs, lemme know what you think!