**DOLLY PARTON SPARKLES AT SONGWRITERS HALL OF FAME GALA **
“You meet the most interesting people in the ladies room,” I said to wasp-waisted, mammary-endowed Dolly Parton. “Even stars have to pee,” was her cheery comeback. Recipient of the Johnny Mercer Award at the June 7 Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner, she was described by SHOF chairman and CEO Hal David as a “songwriter’s songwriter.” By the time midnight struck, Parton, luminous in a blinding yellow-sequined ensemble, wowed the high-profile music industry crowd at the Marriott Marquis by singing several of her hits. Touting the evening’s inductees “from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to the streets of Brooklyn,” David led off with Clive Davispresenting the award to Michael Masser, whose songs include “Touch Me in the Morning.” Bobby Weinstein, who, with the late Freddy Randazzo, wrote “Goin’ Out of My Head,” one of the 50 top recorded songs in record history, recalled: “My mother and father wanted me to be a milkman. I would have gotten the Heavy Cream Award…. My brother is president of the Dairy Freeze empire.” Irving Burgie, composer of Caribbean music, got everyone to join in singing “Day-O,” and no one wanted to “go home.” Inductee Don Black, who accepted the award from “Annie” composer Charles Strouse, wrote theme songs for the films “Born Free” and “To Sir, With Love,” as well as for the James Bond films “Thunderball” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” Black is currently reworking the musical “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” which he wrote with Jule Styne, and is completing a musical version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” with French composer Michel Legrand.
The Towering Song Award went to “Unchained Melody” by Alex North (he died in 1991) and lyricist Hy Zaret, both of whom are gone (North died in 1991; Zaret on July 2). It was announced that Zaret would have celebrated his 100th birthday August 27. Zaret (originally named Zaretzky — his parents came from Russia in the 1880s) addressed the guests via a film clip from his home. He recalled being asked to write a song for the 1955 film “Unchained.” Zaret explained that at first he did not want to do it, because his apartment was being painted. But North persisted: “I wrote it in one day,” Zaret said, smiling “It [became] my annuity.” Zaret lived to see “Unchained Melody” — which was originally rejected by every record label and recording artist — become one of the most performed songs of the 20th century. The song was prominently featured in the 1990 film “Ghost,” and the roster of those who recorded it included Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick and Neil Diamond. I was surprised to discover that Zaret also wrote the hit novelty song “One Meatball.”
“We know the stars, but without the lyricists and composers, the stars would never have shone,” Tony Orlando said. Orlando presented the Abe Olman Publisher Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Music Industry to Don Kirshner. With his partner, Al Nevins, Kirshner founded Aldon Music, which nurtured a generation of songwriters and performers. “We were two pishers: We’d just opened an office, took a chance on [starting] a new publishing company. My hope is that these songs and songwriters will be a legacy for the future.” Among the stars whom Kirshner discovered and nurtured were Bobby Darin, Carole King and, at the piano, Neil Sedaka, who sang one of his own early hits, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
“I’ve been known for two things: my music and lyrics,” said Parton, to much laughter from the audience, upon accepting the Mercer Award from poet and songwriter Rod McKuen. A pregnant pause: “My body of work gets an award from the American Society of Cosmetic Surgery.” More audience laughter. Describing songwriting as “my private time with God,” Parton, born in Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children, imagined her mother’s reaction to a “$1000-a-plate-dinner.” After singing two of her mega-hits — “Jolene” and “9 to 5” — she joshed: “If I wrote ‘9 to 5 today,’ it would be ‘9 to 9:30,’ and [my song] ‘Baby I’m Burning’ would be called ‘Hot Flashes.’” Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You,” which she wrote for the soundtrack of the film, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” became a world wide mega-hit phenomenon after Whitney Houston recorded it for the soundtrack of her 1992 film “The Bodyguard.”
As I left the hotel past, midnight with a CD-filled goody-bag in hand, I realized that the lyrics to “Without a Song,” the Vincent Youmans, William Rose, Edward Elisa 1930s hit, said it best: “Without: a song, the day would never end. Without a song, the road would never bend. When things go wrong, a man ain’t got a friend — without a song.”
BERLIN-BORN LUCAS FOSS CELEBRATED AS AN AUTHENTIC AMERICAN COMPOSER
According to the October 16, 1943, New York Times: On October 15, 1943, Berlin-born 21-year-old Lukas Foss (ne Fuchs) received “a friendly hug and fatherly pat on the head from Conductor Serge Koussevitzky” following the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere performance of Foss’s orchestral work, “The Prairie.” Foss, whose 85th birthday is next month, was honored at An American Awakening — A Birthday Celebration, held June 28 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. His wife Cornelia, daughter Eliza and son Christopher by his side, and surrounded by friends Foss was beaming as “The Prairie” was performed, along with Aaron Copeland’s adaptation of “Old American Songs” and Foss’s Renaissance Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, by The Choral Society of the Hamptons, the Greenwich Village Singers, and The Brooklyn Philharmonic and extraordinary flutist Carol Wincenc, under the baton of Mark Mangini. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Foss was born in Berlin in 1922. His family moved to Paris in 1933, and four years later they came to the United States where, in 1942, 19-year-old Foss met Aaron Copeland. That same year, he discovered Carl Sandburg’s poetry collection, “The Prairie.” According to the program notes, Foss, “inspired by Copeland’s ballet ‘Billy the Kidd’ and attempts by Copeland and others to establish a kind of American classical music, claimed he created his own brand of American music.” How remarkable that “foreigners” — Jewish immigrants (Irving Berlin and Foss) and children of Jewish immigrants (George Gershwin and Copeland (whose parents were Litvaks, as were Leonard Bernstein’s) — have minted so glorious a musical vocabulary that proclaims “America!”
How impressive for the teenage Foss to so viscerally absorb and transmit into music, after less than a decade in the United States, Sandburg’s “Prairie” text “out of prairie brown grass crossed with a streamer of wigwam smoke… when the red and the white men met — the houses and streets rose.” The program was repeated to a sold-out crowd July 7 at the Channing Sculpture Garden in Bridgehampton, N.Y., in a white tent set up on a huge expanse of the Channing Daughters Winery. The winery’s grounds include remarkable “roots-in-the-air” (dead) tree sculptures by Walter Channing. Among the guests savoring the post-concert buffet were Anthony Harvey, director of the film “The Lion in Winter,” and Ruth Applehof, director of Guild Hall.
Reading “Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems,” part of The American Poets Project and published in 2006 by The Library of America (edited by Paul Berman, I was struck by one of the works from 1916 Chicago Poems section. The poem is called “Fish Crier”:
I know a Jew fish crier down on Maxwell Street with a
voice like a north wind blowing over corn stubble in
He dangles herring before prospective customers evinc-
ing a joy identical with that of Pavlova dancing.
His face is that of a man terribly glad to be selling fish,
Terribly glad that God made fish, and customers to
whom he may call his wares from a pushcart.
I immediately thought of Yiddish poet Avrom Liesin’s (circa late 19th- early 20th-century) song “Der Keremer” (“The Storekeeper”), about a poor herring seller sitting in his store and waiting for customers:
Zitzt zikh a kremer in kreml (Sits a storekeeper in his little store)
der oremster kremer in gas (The poorest merchant on the street)
Er zitzt un er vart oyf a koyne (He sits awaiting a customer)
in droysn is elent un nas…. (As outside, it’s lonely and wet)
Herring sellers on Maxwell Street in Chicago? I wonder if Sandburg had heard Liesin’s song before he wrote his poem.
“MORNING STAR” AN EMOTION-PACKED AMERICAN-JEWISH JOURNEY
When the curtain first rose on Sylvia Regan’s 1940 play “Morning Star,” featuring Molly Picon and Joseph Buloff, audience members — some of whom may have landed at Ellis Island — must have recognized their own lives and travails in the Feldman family’s 1910-1931 saga. The play pulsed with romance, betrayal, infidelity, jealousy and revolutionary zeal. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not yet iconic “history,” and unionization and strikes were part of the landscape.
In 1985, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre , in an inspired Yiddish translation by the late great actress Miriam Kressyn, mounted Regan’s play as “Broome Street,” starring Zypora Spaisman as the indomitable Becky Feldman, the immigrant Jewish supermom who firmly and lovingly guides her three daughters and son through those turbulent times. In 2000, the Folksbiene reprised the play — now named “An American Family” — with Sheila Rubell as Becky.
And now, 2007 audiences — including grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of those who may have lived through that era — can see this vintage work ably directed by Dan Wackerman and mounted by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Bank Street Theatre. A l’chaim to Susan Greenhill, who portrays Becky Feldman as well to daughters Fanny, Esther and Sadie, portrayed respectively by Darcy Yellin, Caroline Tamas and Lena Kaminsky. Sadie’s drive for success presages her Fridean sisters. As for the men, special kudos to Matthew DeCapua as Harry Engel, who loses the two women in his life. Steve Sterner (who also starred in the Folksbiene’s 2000 production) is on key as Adam Greenspan, the Feldman family’s “boarder” who remains a boss with a golden heart despite the fact that his life is a rollercoaster of successes and losses. Considering the Bank Street Theatre’s stage limitations, Joseph Spirito’s set design is remarkably multifunctional. And I was particularly impressed with Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costume designs and her amazing hats, which are right on-the-button for each period. Yes, there are some production shortcomings, but they do not detract from the pleasure that had many in the audience crying at the final “Morning Star” curtain. You have until July 28 to see this evocative play that gives human texture to a memorable era of American Jewish history.