Fifty years ago, the dawn of the Seventies, the sound of spring on the British Hit Parade: There was rock (Canned Heat, "Let's Work Together"), soft rock (Simon & Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), folk-rock (Judy Collins, "Both Sides Now"), pop (Steam, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"), session-group pop (Edison Lighthouse, "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"), Motown (Jackson Five, "I Want You Back"), country (Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell, "All I Have to Do Is Dream"), all to one degree or another the soundtrack of the era.
But the Number One bestselling record exactly half a century ago, the one that beat out all the above, was a two-decade-old showtune from a so-so forgotten musical revived for an embarrassingly awful flop film and growled by a guy who is the apotheosis of one-hit wonderdom. One-hit wonders have a certain pathos because, for the most part, they seek regular recording careers: they make singles and albums just like anybody else, but only once does lightning strike. Not this singer: This is not only his only Number One, and his only chart single, but (with one very obscure exception) the entirety of his recording career. And it's not even "his" record in the fullest sense: The B-side is by someone else entirely - Clint Eastwood - and most critics would credit Clint the better singer.
Yet the A-side swept all before it, including the Beatles' farewell single. Because let's face it, if you were the Fab Four, wouldn't you want to call it a day if you were kept out of the Number One spot by this?
Wheels are made for rollin'
Mules are made to pack
I've never seen a sight
That didn't look better looking back...
You look back across the years, and the sight lingers, a long after-glow on a distant horizon. Here's The KLF, an acid-house electronica combo, on their 1991 album The White Room:
We'll stop for lunch
In some taco bar
Lee Marvin on the jukebox
Do they really play it on taco-bar jukeboxes? Well, they play it in church: Another decade on - 2002 - and, performed by the Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock and others, it was the recessional hymn at the funeral of The Clash's Joe Strummer.
Has any other Broadway showtune been publicly performed by a Sex Pistol? Its lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, had in mind for the song Jimmy Cagney. Its composer, Frederick Loewe, Fritz to his friends, was the son of the tenor who took over the role of Count Danilo in the original production of The Merry Widow at the Theater an der Wien. Herr Loewe's wife was a woman who would later claim to be the mistress of a certain Habsburg heir killed at Sarajevo. So, if you've ever wondered about the degrees of separation between the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sid Vicious, this song will get you there quicker than you might have expected.
Born in Berlin to his Viennese parents in 1901, Fritz Loewe grew up in an operetta world: His dad sang in them, and his mom's love life sounds like a plot for one. A piano prodigy, young Fritz was touring across the Continent with symphony orchestras at the age of thirteen. He wrote his first tune at five, and a decade later produced a Mitteleuropean million-seller called "Katrina" about "the girl with the best legs in Berlin". Alas, the assassination of his mother's alleged paramour brought an end to the high times for the Loewes. After military academy and starving his way through the Great War, Fritz wound up in America, where he became in short order a prizefighter, a cowboy and (hold this thought) a gold prospector. Years later, after an evening spent with Loewe recalling his résumé, Ira Gershwin was skeptical:
We were listening to a man who sounded as though he were at once the reincarnation of Ignace Jan Paderewski, Casonava de Seingalt, Tom Mix, Brillat-Savarinn, Bet-a-Million Gates, and Terry McGovern. Not to mention Baron Munchausen.
Certainly Fritz Loewe was born under a wand'rin' star, because, whatever the truth of his purported curriculum vitae, wander he did, across the map. With hindsight, it would be easy to read the prizefighting, cattle-wrangling and gold-prospecting as an overly ambitious attempt at American assimilation, lacking as it does only a spell as comic-book illustrator and G-man. But, as I wrote a few years back, such an interpretation would be wrong:
Richard Rodgers once described Jerome Kern as a composer with one foot in the Old World, one in the New. But that still puts him one foot ahead of Loewe. Panning for gold, branding his longhorns, tying his four-legged friend to the hitching post outside the Dead Man's Gulch saloon, Fritz Loewe's feet nevertheless remained, musically speaking, firmly in Old Vienna. Jazz, swing, musical comedy passed him by, and it wasn't until the mid-1940s that the Rodgers & Hammerstein school of musical play – Oklahoma!, Carousel – created a more hospitable climate for Loewe's talents.
In 1942, looking for the men's room at the Lambs Club in New York, he bumped into Alan Jay Lerner, a moneyed young man struggling to break into showbusiness despite the crippling burdens of having been educated at Bedales in England and then, back in America, at Choate, where his classmates included John F Kennedy.
Born in 1918, Lerner was a generation younger, and not at all born under a wand'rin' star except where women were concerned: Seven divorces burned through the millions from Brigadoon, Gigi, Camelot My Fair Lady et al, and left him in hock not only to his exes but also to the fearsome Internal Revenue Service. Loewe was cannier: It took just the one wife to convince him married life was not for him, and thereafter he flitted through a cavalcade of increasingly younger passing fancies, under no illusion they were anything more. He thus retained his fortune, including the Palm Springs pad with the supersized bed that rotated to face the desert or the mountains or some appealing combination thereof, and the yacht anchored just off his favorite casino at Cannes - in contrast to Lerner, who was insufficiently liquid to pay his final medical bills at Sloane-Kettering. There is a famous story of Lerner and Loewe in London, stopping in at a Park Lane Rolls-Royce showroom after lunch with the impresario Binkie Beaumont. Each man picks out a Rolls. Alan reaches for his checkbook, but Fritz stays his hand. "I'll get these," says Loewe. "You paid for lunch." At the end of Lerner's life, Fritz Loewe could still have bought both cars, but it's not clear Alan could have bought both lunches.
Lerner described himself as a playwright-lyricist, but was far better at the latter than the former. The mid-twentieth-century musical is an adapter's medium: You take a Molnar play and turn it into Carousel, a Shakespeare play and make it Kiss Me, Kate, some Damon Runyan stories for Guys and Dolls, a Siamese governess's autobiography for The King and I... But, until he stumbled on George Bernard Shaw for My Fair Lady, Lerner took the front half of "playwright-lyricist" deadly seriously, and wrote original dramas for him and Loewe to musicalize. With Brigadoon (1947) he did such a good job with the entirely invented Scottish village that re-emerges from the mist for one day every century that to the end of his life he received letters from people claiming to know the actual town on which Lerner had "based" his story.
Four years later Lerner & Loewe decided to write another original musical, but this time about the old west and the gold-rush days. Musicals are inherently "unreal", but every so often Alan would get the urge to immerse himself in research and bring a documentary vérité to the form. His bicentennial presidential mega-flop with Leonard Bernstein, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), was crippled by Lerner's obsession with historical authenticity. When the show ran into trouble, Arthur Laurents, the co-author of Gypsy and West Side Story, was called in to help out and told me of the difficulties he had getting the authors to focus. "I'd keep asking them, 'What is this show about?', and Alan would be obsessed with the fact that George Washington had wooden teeth. Fine, but what has that to do with plot or character?"
The same question could be asked of Paint Your Wagon. Alan had done lots of research, and turned up archival tidbits about western towns in which men owned women as property (in stark contrast to his own experience, in which the women wound up owning him). But he never really succeeded in turning trivia-quiz fascinating facts into any kind of compelling plot. As to character, unless inheriting them fully formed from Shaw (Fair Lady), Colette (Gigi) or Arthurian myth (Camelot), it wasn't his strongest suit. Certainly, the dramatis personae of Lerner's California gold-rush pale by comparison to those of Jack London's or Robert W Service's Yukon gold-rush. If Fritz Loewe contributed anything from his own supposed prospecting days, you'd never know it.
As you can see from that checklist of source material, Lerner & Loewe seemed to do best with very non-American source material: Edwardian London, fin de siècle Paris, Arthurian England... Paint Your Wagon was, as Gene Lees described it, "the only show they would ever write with an American story, and the score, which sounds like a collage of old Western-movie scores and snippets of Stephen Foster, shows nothing so much as that Fritz Loewe was not an American."
"I didn't realize until many years later," said Alan, "that practically every song in it is about loneliness."
True: "I Still See Elisa", "They Call the Wind Maria", "Wand'rin' Star"... For the record, this is the man who introduced that last song to the world - James Barton, on stage at the Shubert Theatre on November 12th 1951:
Alan Jay Lerner did not invent the concept of a wan'drin' star. The Ancient Greeks noticed that in the night sky a handful of stars appeared to move relative to the others. They called them "wandering stars" - by name, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter, each of which was designated a "planetes", which is Greek for rover, or wanderer. But there's no doubt Lerner & Loewe did as much as any men since the ancients to plant the phrase in the language, and set to the perfect loping tune to communicate the underlying sentiment. The guys had a title and a melody; what they didn't yet have was a lyric. Lerner's original text is a bit too generic:
Stayin' put can kill you
Standin' still's a curse
To settle down can drive you mad
But movin' on is worse...
For a lyric about wand'rin', the whole thing is standin' still a bit. And it's not quite in the voice of the character, so much as an author's description of a character.
Paint Your Wagon ran nine months and then, in those glorious teeming Broadway seasons of the Fifties, was quickly obliterated by other shows, not least Lerner & Loewe's own global blockbuster of 1956, in which the team was finally paired with its perfect material. Indeed, too perfect, especially for its detractors: "I saw My Fair Lady, I sort of enjoyed it," sings a character, somewhat snippily, in Stephen Sondheim's flop Merrily We Roll Along. In a very select correspondence from him over the decades, Sondheim was even snippier to me over an oblique comparison of him with Lerner, whom he disdained. But Alan too came to resent My Fair Lady, a hit of such proportions he could never top it. One night, he and his fourth wife Micheline were in bed watching the eleven o'clock news, and, as Mrs L told it, there was a story about Neil Simon's "twelfth Broadway smash". And Alan Jay Lerner started to cry.
So flash forward from 1951 to the end of the Sixties. Lerner is very belatedly making a film of Paint Your Wagon. That's to say, he's the guy making it: he's the producer. As the screenwriter, he's comprehensively rewritten his original 1951 libretto. No big deal: the script was never that great. But his rewrite has managed, somewhat impressively, to make it worse - and necessitated the need for new songs. Frederick Loewe is long retired to the gaming tables and gamer gals, but Lerner flies out in a vain effort to coax him back to work and, when Fritz demurs, asks whether he'd mind if their old MGM chum André Previn rattled off the extra numbers required. Fritz assents, and André gets to work.
But who exactly are they writing for? For the leading lady, Alan's first choice was Julie Andrews - because, ever since My Fair Lady, his first choice was always Julie Andrews. But Miss Andrews was busy with what would prove to be the gargantuan career-stopper of a flop, Star! As for the substantially rewritten role of the rough'n'ready prospector Ben Rumson, originated on Broadway by James Barton, Lerner told me years ago that as a young aspiring writer it was his ambition to work with four very great talents: Fred Astaire, Maurice Chevalier, Katherine Hepburn and James Cagney. He achieved seventy-five per cent of that bold dream: Astaire starred in Lerner's film Royal Wedding, Chevalier in Gigi, Hepburn in his Broadway show Coco, and Cagney was supposed to do Paint Your Wagon but declined.
So then the documentary-realism side of Alan took over, and he decided that he didn't want a lot of prancing musical-comedy ninnies but the sort of tough gritty cast who looked as if they belonged in hardscrabble pioneer towns. So he cast Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg. The first was busy with Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch, but Lerner dangled a million bucks upfront and a share of the profits, and Lee Marvin told Peckinpah so long.
There was just one teensy-weensy problem: None of Lerner's trio of stars had any reputation as a singer. Clint comes closest: He had had a few years earlier a recording deal with Sinatra's Reprise label, and he has a real jazz sensibility - which meant, on Fritz Loewe's tunes, he would lapse into back-phrasing and swingin' that suited neither the score nor the setting.
Jean Seberg? She wanted to sing, but, after a test, Lerner concluded she fell just a bit short and consulted André Previn as to who would be a good soundalike to ghost for her. Previn said he'd worked years ago with a singer called Rita Gordon whose voice he recalled as a bit like Seberg's. Did he have a 'phone number? Previn rummaged around: No, but he had an address. They decided to cable her, and called Western Union:
"We'd like to send a telegram to Rita Gordon."
"I'm Rita Gordon," she said. She'd given up and gotten out of the business. So Lerner and Previn got her back in.
As for Lee Marvin, he insisted on singing his own songs. On Broadway, Abe Burrows, co-author of Guys and Dolls (and father of James Burrows, director of "Cheers", "Frasier", "Rhoda", "Friends", Laverne & Shirley", "Will & Grace", "The Big Bang Theory", etc, etc, etc), liked to say that a character who doesn't have a song isn't really in the musical. Which is true. But on the big screen an actor who doesn't sing his own song isn't really in it, either. Marvin made the right call. So the only question was how to get the song out of him.
It fell to the film's conductor, Nelson Riddle. As Lerner told it to me, Lee Marvin had been drinking heavily on set, so Riddle figured go with it and had plenty of whisky on hand, dropping the key and refilling the glass over and over and over, until late in the session the song and the orchestra and and the whisky and Marvin's toneless growl all came together:
I was born under a Wand'rin' Star
I was born under a Wand'rin' Star
Wheels are made for rollin'
Mules are made to pack
I've never seen a sight
That didn't look better looking back...
That's Lerner at his best, and way better than what James Barton had to work with. The images are fresh and particular, rooted in the story's milieu and within the horizons of its character:
Mud can make you prisoner
And the plains can bake you dry
Snow can burn your eyes
But only people make you cry...
We're teetering on the brink of self-parody now, but without ever quite falling in ...well, almost:
Do I know where hell is? Hell is in 'Hello...'
Do I know where hell is? Hell is in a three-hour movie that wanders interminably without ever wand'rin' off. What Alan Lerner knew about film, he'd learned from Arthur Freed, the peerless producer of Lerner's An American in Paris and Gigi, as well as Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade, and on and on. Louis B Mayer had told Freed, and Freed had told Lerner, that the most important person on a picture was the producer. Next came the writer, then the star, and in fourth place the director. In other words, if the right producer had the right script with the right cast, any competent director could photograph it. Alan scorned the notion on Broadway of a "director's theatre" and in Hollywood of the director as auteur. And so he was most comfortable with directors he could push around - even if, almost by definition, a director you can push around isn't likely to be much good.
Just before starting work on Wagon, Alan ran into the film historian Tony Thomas, who told him that, speaking as a fan of Camelot on stage, he was very sorry that its screen director had turned it into such a drab, claustrophobic picture. Indeed he did, agreed Lerner. So who did Alan Jay Lerner hire to direct his very next movie? The self-same director, Josh Logan - a great man of the theatre, but an uninspired journeyman on the big screen. Lerner's idea of a well-directed movie was lots of close-ups of an actor's head so you could see him mouthing the lyrics. And Logan was happy to go along.
On the one occasion we spoke about his blockbuster chart-topper of March 1970, Alan affected an amused condescension about it - as if it were a self-evidently absurd commercial windfall from a great work of art. But, in fact, it's the only consolation of a ludicrous artistic and commercial fiasco, one of an avalanche of nails (Camelot, Star!, Dr Doolittle, Hello, Dolly!) in the coffin of the screen musical at the tail-end of the Sixties. "Wand'rin' Star" is a three-minute gem salvaged from the wreckage: Nelson Riddle's orchestration improves considerably on Ted Royal's Broadway original, the wagon-train chorus provides necessary vocal support for the soloist yet remains in character, the singer sounds not just as if he's singing a song but as if he's lived it as a personal credo, and the lyricist provides him with unforgettably vivid images far beyond James Barton's bland generalities. Anyone involved in the creation of this one brief shining moment can be proud of it.
Is it a standard? Well, if you mean has anybody done it as a bossa nova or a disco track, not exactly. But for a while they gave it a go. Here's Engelbert:
And, if you don't care for it in easy-listening style, how about rocked up by the Pogues' Shane MacGowan?
In all its seven decades, has it ever been recorded by a woman? Well, it took a while, but here from 2007 is "Wand'rin' Star" at meand'rin' tempo by Mary Ann Hurst - and with the original lyric:
Somewhat weirdly, the very next track on Miss Hurst's album is "Wand'rin' Star"'s 1970 B-side, Clint Eastwood's "I Talk to the Trees".
While we're wand'rin' the byways of this song, I should note that "Wand'rin Star" is the opus that brings together two sides of Tim Rice - the chartological and the theatrical: He is the co-editor of multiple Guinness books on British hit singles from the Fifties on; and, as a boy, the original cast album of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady was a fixture on his parents' record player and an enduring influence. It all came together one day early in 1970 when he spotted a competition in a newspaper asking readers to predict the Number One hit three weeks hence. Tim picked Lee Marvin's "Wand'rin' Star", which was then at Number Forty-Nine or some such. A month later, he was being flown to the Continent and interviewed by Radio Luxembourg on his genius prognostication. Shortly thereafter, the original album of Jesus Christ Superstar began moving up the charts worldwide, and Tim didn't need any newspaper competition prizes to keep body and soul together.
For a while in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I recall spending several evenings listening to Tim warbling at various songwriter memorials. For example, he sang "Suspicion" at a tribute to the great Mort Shuman. I had the pleasure of being fifth row central at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for the performance below. It was something of a variable evening - Stubby Kaye forgot his lyrics, and Placido Domingo's "The Rain in Spain" wasn't as much fun as it should have been - but this was definitely a highlight. Tim Rice recounted the story of his winning prediction, and then sang the song with the vocal group Cantabile. He slips a wee bit of Elvis in toward the end, too - a suspiciously wand'rin star, as it were:
Finally, to return to where we came in, I mentioned that "Wand'rin' Star" was Lee Marvin's entire recording career ...except for one other track. In 1975 he made a picture called Shout at the Devil, in which he was called upon to sing a number by Alex Masters called "Shaggin' O'Reilly's Daughter". When the film was released, the song had been cut. But in 1976 someone, evidently seeking a second "Wand'rin' Star", released it as a single - and this time Lee didn't need Clint on the flip side: the B-side was an unbleeped version of "O'Reilly's Daughter", leaving a sanitized version for the A-side. I don't believe I have ever heard either on the radio. And with that second forlorn release Lee Marvin's recording career came to a close.
He has one other Lerner & Loewe connection. By the early Eighties Marvin had become as famous for the landmark "palimony" suit brought by legendary divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson (about whom more can be found in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade) on behalf of a lady with whom he had lived without benefit of clergy. One night on some TV special or other, Richard Burton and Bob Hope were dueting their way through a song from Lerner & Loewe's Camelot, "How to Handle a Woman" - to which title Hope responded:
Well, one thing's for sure. We won't ask Lee Marvin.
And that goes octuple for Alan Jay Lerner.
~There's more on Alan Jay Lerner in Mark's acknowledged classic Broadway Babies Say Goodnight.
Next week we'll be presenting another live-performance edition of our Song of the Week with the great singer-pianist Carol Welsman, who was a big hit on this season's Mark Steyn Christmas Show. It is always a pleasure when our musical get-togethers lead to something that might otherwise never have happened: backstage at the Christmas show, Carol and another guest Randy Bachman happened to be chit-chatting about this and that, and Randy proposed a song of his he thought would be just right for Carol. We're delighted to say it will now be a track on her forthcoming Latin CD, which you can find out more about here. For the first time, Carol is part-funding the project through Kickstarter, and you can either chip in for a pre-order of the album or go for something rather more lavish, such as the chance to attend one of Carol's recording sessions. If you were with us in Montreal for the Christmas Show, you'll know what a treat it is to hear Carol live. For more information, click here.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.