Okay, it's Valentine's Day, so I figured I'd pass along a couple of my all-time fave love songs from musicals. (I was going to say Broadway musicals, but this first one is from London's West End, and oddly never came over to Broadway.) Remarkably, both are probably songs you've never heard. Even more remarkably, they're from shows many of you have never even heard of.
The first is from the musical Robert and Elizabeth, based on the successful play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, about the love affair between two of the greatest poets in the English language, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, who later married. They lived during Victorian society when the father was the king, and her father was not only king of his household, but pretty close to a monster. (The movie version of the play is available on Netflix.Charles Laughton played the near-demonic patriarch.) And the father was repressively strict in keeping a clamped-down hand on his children's lives. Notably Elizabeth's, who was sickly most of her life. Therefore when Robert Browning came courting her, it was an impossible task, to convince her that he was actually in love with her and had every intention of pursuing her, regardless of the hurdles.
The score is by Ron Grainer (who wrote the great theme song to the classic TV series, The Prisoner - and also Doctor Who), with Ronald Millar, who did the lyrics -- and probably had the more daunting task of the two. After all, he had to put poetic words in the mouths of two of the greatest poets ever. And not only did he succeed, but in this song, I think he reached his heights. There are thoughtful, funny, mature, clever rhymes with rich language you rarely hear on the stage, let alone in a song.
Now I'm rich. Rich as Croessus.
Taller than St. Peter's Rome.
I've found where the Golden Fleece is
Without even leaving home.
That's heady stuff. The whole score is great. Elegant, funny, poetic. I find it the British equivalent of My Fair Lady. But -- as I said, it never came to Broadway. It did well in London, though wasn't a huge hit. I think it ran around 300 performances, though was very expensive to produce, so it may have lost money. Still, I'm surprised it didn't get brought over.
The two performers here are Keith Michell and June Bronhill. She was an Australian opera singer (who in one song, "Woman and Man," hits a note I've never heard in a musical and still don't think she's going to reach it whenever I listen to the song.) And he was best known in the U.S for starring in an acclaimed PBS Masterpiece Theatre production, The Eight Wives of Henry VIII -- though later audiences might recognize him from a recurring role on Murder She Wrote. (By the way, in case you were wondering, the producer listed at the top of the album cover is not the American actor, Martin Landau...)
But enough of that. "Here's I Said Love."
And the other song, great as "I Said Love" is, might be my favorite love song from a musical. And arguably one of my favorite love songs, period. It's "When Did I Fall in Love?" from the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning musical, Fiorello! (which weeks ago was just revived in New York for the Encores! series, for the second time).
I've written about Fiorello! at length recently, here, so I won't go into it again. But the song comes after Fiorello LaGuardia has been elected to the U.S. Congress (mayor of New York is still years off), and he's headed off to work. At home is his wife, Thea, a beautiful women he met during a labor strike she was trying to lead, and he helped out. Their marriage was one more of convenience, largely on her part, since Fiorello loved her and accepted that she admired him and was appreciative to him more than loved. And then, on this day, it's all caught up to her, after several years with this dynamic man who adores her that...to her shock...she is deeply in love with him.
(That's Ellen Hanley on the right, who performs the song. Tom Bosley won a Tony Award in the title role, before going on the star on TV in Happy Days, of course. Pat Stanley on the left played LaGuardia's long-suffering secretary, Marie -- who became his second wife. Given that Fiorello! is based on a real-life story, it’s worth noting that – adding to the heartbreak beauty of the song – not long after Fiorello and Thea moved to Washington, she died of tuberculosis at the age of just 26.)
The music is by Jerry Bock, and the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the team who would a few years later write Fiddler on the Roof. And the words are pure Harnick -- simple, almost conversational, the way someone might talk at home, until you realize that it's not just plain speech, but actually the most poetic, lyrical thing you've heard. And Jerry Bock's music starts out quietly, and then soars. The trick of a great love song is to be emotional but without being mawkish, yet on the other hand being simple without being passionless. "When Did I Fall in Love?" -- all the more so when you know the full context -- is about as good as it gets.
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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