Yesterday, I posted an audio link for a song from the musical, Barnum, a show which starred Jim Dale, who narrated all the Harry Potter audio books. I've come across a 6-1/2 video which demonstrates wonderfully why he gave an acclaimed, Tony-winning performance as Best Actor. And why I think this is a very under-rated score. (The female lead of Barnum, by the way, Tony-nominated in a supporting role, was an up-and-coming actress, Glenn Close.)
When I first came across the score to Barnum, I'd presumed it had music by Cy Coleman (who wrote, among many things, the show Sweet Charity), with lyrics by Michael Bramble, and a book by Michael Stewart. I presumed this because Michael Stewart was one of the more accomplished book writers of Broadway musicals, with shows like Hello, Dolly!, Bye, Bye Birdie, the recently-mentioned Carnival!, 42nd Street and many more.
I was very impressed with the very smart, sharp and clever lyrics by Mark Bramble, who I hadn't heard of before. But only after a few years did I look more closely at the credits and discovered that I was wrong. Mark Bramble didn't write the lyrics to Barnum -- Michael Stewart did. Bramble wrote the book. I was flabbergasted, since as far as I knew, Michael Stewart was exclusively a book writer, never before a lyricist, and these were the work of a seriously-accomplished professional. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand (since Barnum was a big hit, running 854 performances on Broadway), never wrote lyrics for any other shows, though he did do the book for a few musicals. He passed away seven years later, and there wasn't much information on him about it.
However, one day I was visiting with the legendary writer Larry Gelbart and mentioned this to him. (I think it's impossible to mention Larry Gelbart and not refer to him as "legendary." It might be illegal not to, as well, for all I know.) He'd worked a great deal on Broadway, so I figured he might know something about it. Fortunately, he did. He said that Michael Stewart had always wanted to be a lyricist, but because of his success as a book writer, he was never given the opportunity and felt very frustrated by it. He'd finally written the lyrics to a small show -- either off-Broadway or it might not have even gotten that far, I forget -- but that was it. But he finally got his chance with Barnum, and got a Tony nomination for the score. It's a shame he never wrote lyrics to any other musicals, but it's a joy that he got to do this one.
This video is actually two numbers from Barnum at the 1981 Tony Awards. The exuberant Come Follow the Band (which gives a great sense of the grand extravaganza the show was), and then Jim Dale shows clearly why he won the Tony for Best Actor with "There is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute," where he bounces his way enthusiastically through every note.
(It's worth noting that not only are lyrics wonderful for the latter -- including a rhyme for "Phineas" -- but writing a song based on a famous line is an extremely tough thing to do. And Stewart pulls it off.)
There's one other thing worth mentioning in the video, though it's really just of a personal nature. At 1:28 into the clip, you'll see a pert, young girl come bounding onto the stage from the left-hand corner, twirling a baton. Her name is Sophie Schwab, and for such a small role in the show, she got a lot of attention. Critics were stunned by a chorus member who not only could toss a baton, but was so truly amazing at it, doing some gasp-worthy tricks. What they didn't know at first -- but I did -- is that although Sophie Schwab had been in the theater department at Northwestern University, she had also been the school's majorette in the marching band and had won many awards as a twirler. I began going to Northwestern football games with my dad from the time I was eight, and we had adored watching Sophie, looked forward to Sophie. She wasn't just a twirler, she was absolutely remarkable. (In an interview I later came across, she said that she could never remember dropping the baton during a performance -- she didn't mean the performance of Barnum, but any performance, whether while marching or in a competition. From what little you can see in this clip when they cut to her -- her boundless skill is clear.) Our time attending Northwestern overlapped, so I got to see her tossing batons for years. I also saw her co-star in a hilarious play, the Flying Karamazov Brothers' version of Shakespeare's, A Comedy of Errors. It was wildly entertaining, filled of course with much juggling and every bit of vaudeville shtick you could imagine. Including, yes, there was baton twirling. The audience went wild. It's one thing to see a baton twirler in a musical about the circus. But in Shakespeare, during a soliloquy, no, the audience really wasn't expecting it. Well, okay, I was...
So, here is an enthusiastic Jim Dale, preceded by the showstopping, "Come Follow the Band." (With Sophie Schwab at 1:28...) The video quality isn't great, but everything speaks for itself.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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