A song for the season
by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
This essay is drawn from Mark's book A Song For The Season:
I wonder what he'll think of me
I guess he'll call me
The old man
I guess he'll think I can lick
Ev'ry other feller's father –
Well, I can!
The greatest of all songs about fatherhood was written for the 1945 Broadway hit Carousel. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein's follow-up to Oklahoma! and ever after Dick Rodgers' favorite score. Hard to disagree. Yet, in a show that includes "If I Loved You" and "What's The Use Of Wond'rin'?" and the magnificent "Carousel Waltz" that opens the evening, the "Soliloquy" is still the stand-out: Oscar Hammerstein's meditation on impending fatherhood in all its facets. At the risk of over-generalizing, maternity for mothers is a physical process, growing inside you. With fathers, it's different: you're told you're going to become a dad and, insofar as there's any growth process, it's psychological. That's what Rodgers and Hammerstein capture so well. If motherhood is something that swells inside you across nine months, in this "Soliloquy" fatherhood grows in the space of some nine minutes, from barroom braggadocio…
My boy, Bill!
He'll be tall
And as tough as a tree
…to a kind of fearful understanding of his responsibilities:
I got to get ready before she comes
I got to make certain that she
Won't be dragged up in slums
With a lot o' bums like me…
It was introduced on the stage of the Majestic Theatre by John Raitt, father of Bonnie and the great Broadway voice of his generation. He played Billy Bigelow, a carney barker, a no-account roustabout better at getting girls than at getting ahead. Billy has a glib cocksure charm and at the big First Act finale, when his wife Julie tells him she's expecting their child, he conjures a boy in his own image:
…and you won't see nobody dare to try
To boss him or toss him around
No pot-bellied, baggy-eyed bully'll boss him around
I don't give a damn what he does
As long as he does what he likes
He can sit on his tail
Or work on a rail
With a hammer, hammering spikes…
And it's only halfway through the number that the thought occurs:
What if he's ...a girl?
Rodgers and Hammerstein started adapting Molnar's Liliom into Carousel in 1944 and were doing okay in a dogged sort of way until they wrote this long, through-sung scene that closes the First Act. Hammerstein, in articulating the swagger and tenderness and awful premonitions of a simple man, and Rodgers, in setting the character's emotional evolution to brilliantly contrasting thematic material, unlocked the door to the show's heart, and the rest of the score poured out of them.
Carousel opened on April 19th 1945. The following month, Zeke Zarchy, the lead trumpeter on Frank Sinatra's radio show, went over to the singer's pad for dinner. "There were half a dozen people," he told Will Friedwald, "and we all walked into his den where he had his hi-fi set up. He played us some things from Carousel, which had just come out. We heard the big 'Soliloquy' that the main character sings, and we were all impressed with it. Frank said, 'These are the kinds of things that I want to do.'"
That was tougher than it sounds back then. A brisk "Soliloquy" clocks in at eight minutes. That's a long song, so long that (see page 139) the published sheet music cost twice the usual 50 cents. Even broken in two, as Columbia did with it in 1946, it's a tight fit on both sides of a 78. But Sinatra recognized the uniqueness of the piece, from anticipation of all the fun the guy's gonna have with "my boy Bill" to the slowly dawning terror of responsibility. Halfway through, on that line "What if he's a …girl?", Frank, a recent father of one of each, sings with a kind of bewildered disgust. But the sentiment leads into some of the most lyrical passages Rodgers ever wrote and Sinatra ever sang.
Mary Rodgers, a fine composer in her own right and also the author of her own exploration of parents and children, Freaky Friday, says she only once saw her father display any emotion - when her mother suffered a miscarriage late in life and dad sobbed on his teenage daughter's shoulders because it was his last chance for a son. Thus, as she understood it, even his vulnerability was an implicit criticism of her. It's a strange moment, weirdly echoing the "What if he's a girl?" moment in "Soliloquy". By contrast, Sinatra, for a showbiz pop, was a terrific father, loved to this day by all three of his kids.
Frank stayed with the "Soliloquy" for the next half-century. In the Fifties, he was supposed to do the film of Carousel, but quit the set when they told him he'd have to do every scene twice, once for the regular cameras, another for the new CinemaScope system. It was twice as much work, so, not unreasonably, he asked for twice as much dough. They balked, he walked. In the Sixties, he recorded it again for The Concert Sinatra in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle. The orchestration and the voice are almost too good – too clean, too pure, compared with the very raw, tentative Frank of two decades earlier. But he and the arrangement grew together, and into the early Nineties you could still see him on stage in Atlantic City or London or Tokyo pushing himself through a punishing full-scale recreation of Billy Bigelow – the role he should have played on film condensed into ten minutes a night in recital halls and sports arena around the world decade after decade. Round about the last time I met him, I saw some guy sing the "Soliloquy" in the Royal National Theatre revival of Carousel: great voice - if you think a voice is about hitting notes and holding them for the requisite length. But the fellow had nothing to say. Sinatra, a couple of years shy of 80, could still make you believe he was a cocky punk, scraping a living along the Maine coast, contemplating the birth of his first child. He liked the grit of the song:
…no fat-bottomed, flabby-faced,
Pot-bellied, baggy-eyed bastard
Will boss him around
And I'm damned if he'll marry the boss's daughter
A skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water…
But, when the song switches from some roughneck tyke of a son to a little girl, he also wrings all the aching loveliness out of Rodgers' melody:
My little girl
Pink and white
As peaches and cream is she…
If I had to pick a favorite Sinatra "Soliloquy" I'd choose the ten-minute version on Sinatra 80th Live In Concert, released by Capitol in December 1995. The old man turns in a cracking performance, and by then he was the only guy to sing the whole thing, including a passage they don't even do in the show anymore:
When I have a daughter
I'll stand around in barrooms
Oh, how I'll boast and blow
Friends will see me coming
And they'll empty all the barrooms…
With most of the standard repertoire, Sinatra eschewed corny stand-and-deliver big finishes, placing the climactic open-voweled high-note three-quarters of the way in and preferring to land softly, as he does in "I've Got You Under My Skin" and a hundred others. But in his act he always liked to have what they call a real collar-popper and the big final note of "Soliloquy" – "…or DIE!!!" – stayed in his act till the very end. "I just wish more performers would do it," he said. "If they had the guts, they've got the talent and big voices, but nobody does that." Sinatra's remains the only successful version of the piece outside the show.
That 80th-birthday live recording is what I was listening to as I drove to pick my wife up at Logan Airport a few days before Christmas. As we left the terminal, she made me pull off the shoulder and told me she was expecting our first child. Frank's septuagenarian take on impending fatherhood is full of rueful wisdom. Everything about that recording of "Soliloquy" is true, and powerfully so. That's what great popular music does.