In George Lucas' best film - no, not Star Wars Episode 12: The Force Awakens the Empire's Return of the Revenge of the Awakening of the Force, but American Graffiti - there's a scene where young Harrison Ford and young Cindy Williams are sitting sullenly in his '55 Chevy during a rather awkward moment in their relationship. Ford suggested to Lucas that it might be a good idea for him to serenade her in a somewhat sardonic fashion. The director liked the idea, and they tried the scene with a couple of Everly Brothers tunes (all the music in the film is early rock'n'roll from the end of the Fifties and the dawn of the Sixties). But nothing seemed to work, and eventually Harrison Ford hit upon warbling Rodgers & Hammerstein in florid mock-operatic Italian-voweled bombast:
Somm Enchanntid Eefning
You will see a strainjer
You will see a strainjer
Across a crrrrowdid rhum
And soddenly you knowww
That sheee is the one...
Young Harrison didn't get the lyric quite right, but for a rock'n'roll greaser's take on Ezio Pinza, who introduced the song on Broadway, and Rossano Brazzi, who (dubbed by Giorgio Tozzi) sang it in the film version, it's pretty good. The composer, Richard Rodgers, hated the scene, of course, and refused Lucas permission to use it - which is why it wasn't included on American Graffiti's original run in 1973, but only showed up on the film's theatrical re-release five years later, by which time Rodgers had presumably relented. Still, one has to admire Ford's instinct for la chanson juste: this was a perfect choice for a song that stands in contrast to all the rock and doowop and teeny pop on the soundtrack - a stately, grandiloquent tune, a lyric of heightened romantic enchantment, the acme and embodiment of the mid-20th century Broadway showtune.
And this very evening it celebrates its seventieth birthday. "Some Enchanted Evening" was unveiled to the world at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street on April 7th 1949 - the opening night of South Pacific. Rodgers & Hammerstein were wary of first-night parties and had eschewed them for Oklahoma! and Carousel. But they felt pretty good about this one, and booked the rooftop ballroom of the St Regis Hotel. Then they told the guy at the newsstand to pre-order two hundred copies of the first edition of The New York Times, so confident were they of a rave review. They weren't wrong.
It began with a book: Tales of the South Pacific, the publishing debut of James Michener - not quite a novel and not quite autobiography, but a series of vignettes from his wartime service in the New Hebrides. Oscar Hammerstein set to work streamlining and organizing the material, Josh Logan was signed to direct and Mary Martin to star, opposite an Italian operatic bass who'd just retired from the Met and was pushing sixty - Ezio Pinza. These days every director with a concept feels obliged to announce that this or that revival is going to "re-invent" Rodgers & Hammerstein, but back in the Forties R&H were doing a pretty good job of re-inventing themselves. As I note in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, having made (with Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma! and Carousel) the extended dream ballet de rigueur on Broadway, on South Pacific they dispensed with a choreographer altogether and for "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" had director Logan tell the cast just to stomp around like a bunch of horny frustrated sailors. In the original production, the role of Lieutenant Buzz Adams was played by Don Fellows, who some decades later subsequently and far less illustriously acted in a Ring Lardner adaptation of mine, part of which you can sample here. As Don recalled it, for South Pacific Josh Logan gave the men in the cast fifty bucks and sent them to the military-surplus shop to buy the clothes each actor felt his character should wear. Don told me he riffled around in the bargain bins on 42nd Street until he found a baseball cap, boots and shirt approximating to those he'd worn in the Marines. An unusual approach for a musical.
Four years after the war, almost everyone had a connection to the subject matter. So all Rodgers & Hammerstein had to do was to come up with a score that would make the material sing. The opening number was for children, and in French: "Dites-Moi." There were the customary Rodgers waltzes, for good times ("I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy") and bad ("This Nearly Was Mine") and for the Hammerstein messaging on race and hate ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"). There was Broadway exotica ("Bali Ha'i") and buoyant optimism ("Happy Talk") and a bit of stage business in which Mary Martin shampooed her coiffure live on stage every night ("I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair"). Miss Martin told me years ago that "Cockeyed Optimist" was her personality perfectly distilled to three minutes, and the show's secondary romance offered a more reflective perspective on irrepressible youth in "Younger Than Springtime".
Ezio Pinza, twice the age of the usual Broadway leading man, was something of a surprise hit. Lord Byron said, after Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, that "I awoke one morning and found myself famous"; James Michener said that, after South Pacific, he awoke and found Ezio Pinza famous - which he evidently found more mystifying. The critic George Jean Nathan declared that "Pinza has taken the place of Hot Springs, Saratoga, and hormone injections" as the elixir of youth for America's more ambitious oldsters. And it was for Pinza that Richard Rodgers wrote the song you feel he'd always wanted to write:
I once asked Mary Martin how she felt about having to stand there staring into the horizon while Ezio Pinza got the biggest song in the show. She smiled sweetly, and said, "He needed it. I didn't."
According to Lehman Engel, the original conductor of South Pacific, the germ of the song was very simple. About a decade earlier, it had occurred to Oscar Hammerstein that he'd quite like to write a song structured around verbs, so he tucked the thought away in his mental filing cabinet and waited until he had the right spot for it. Which turned out to be South Pacific, and the most beloved love song Rodgers & Hammerstein would ever write - held together by verbs:
You may see a stranger...
You may hear her laughing...
When you feel her call you...
The words came first. With Rodgers & Hart, the music came first. But Rodgers & Hammerstein opted to reverse the process, which is why the tunes lack that particular freewheeling quality of Rodgers' music in the Twenties and Thirties - "Thou Swell", "The Lady is a Tramp", "I Wish I Were in Love Again". Dorothy Hammerstein, who tended to be overly protective of the lyricist's status, was once at a party at which someone remarked of Mrs Rodgers, "Oh, her husband wrote 'Some Enchanted Evening'." Mrs Hammerstein felt obliged to issue a correction: "My husband wrote 'Some Enchanted Evening'. Mrs Rodgers' husband wrote 'Dum-dee dum-dee dum-dum'."
The same story is told with respect to Mrs Jerome Kern and "Ol' Man River", so perhaps Dorothy Hammerstein made a habit of it. At any rate, Mrs Rodgers' husband would never have written "Dum-dee dum-dee dum-dum" had Mrs Hammerstein's husband not first written "Some Enchanted Evening". It was a song that defined the wartime romance at the heart of South Pacific: Nellie Forbush is a young American navy nurse from Little Rock; Emile de Becque is an older, worldly French planter with two young children by a Polynesian woman. M de Becque and Ensign Forbush meet at a dance at the officers' club:
You may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again
Some Enchanted Evening
Someone may be laughing
You may hear her laughing
Across a crowded room
And night after night
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams...
As for the mismatch, sure, he's not the kind of guy she saw herself falling for, but why worry about it?
Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why
Fools give you reasons
Wise men never try...
Indeed. Emile is telling her that, when you find love, you don't pass it by. Instead, you
...fly to her side
And make her your own
Or all through your life
You may dream all alone...
Which in Oscar Hammerstein's universe is about as lonely as it can get.
It's an AABA song, but not a 32-bar tune. Rodgers evidently recognized that this was no time to constrain yourself. So each A section (the ones that begin with the title phrase) is 16 bars, and then there's that teeny little six-bar middle section above, which is reprised as a tag. That makes 60 bars in all. It's consciously grand and formal, and not to everyone's taste: "No, I don't like 'Some Enchanted Evening'," pronounced the musicologist and composer Alec Wilder. "I find it pale and pompous and bland. Where, oh where, are all those lovely surprises, those leaps in the dark, those chances? I'm in church and it's the wrong hymnal!"
Each to his own. And yet that first image of Hammerstein's is a marvelous distillation of love at first sight: the stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, the moment when your eyes meet, and something sparks. The song takes that moment and holds it, for 60 bars and a lifetime.
So, even though it's about that first sight of love, it's not a song for the young. It's a reflection for mature people who've known it and lived it. It's a grown-up song, and, as you grow, it grows on you. I remember years ago being rather touched at hearing how "Some Enchanted Evening" always brought a tear to the eye of Barbara Castle, a disastrous but vivacious UK Labour cabinet minister of the Sixties and Seventies, because it reminded her of meeting her late husband Ted. It had the same impact on a lot of that generation: for a pop song it has the odd distinction of being born middle-aged.
Alec Wilder's pal Frank Sinatra had a 20-year relationship with the song, and a rather longer one with Richard Rodgers. In 1943, after the opening of his first hit show with Oscar Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, Rodgers was the toast of Broadway. Sinatra was a young band singer just beginning his solo career - and during a musicians' strike, which meant that Frank's first sessions for Columbia were backed only by choirs ooh-ing and ah-ing. Yet the composer discerned that this young singer would be both important and consequential, and made a point of attending the recording sessions for the two Oklahoma! songs Frank favored - "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're In Love". Rodgers was in black tie and tuxedo, either because he was just coming from something or just on his way to something or because that was just how he dressed for recording sessions.
Six years later, on February 28th 1949, Sinatra was back in the studio - with a full orchestra this time - to record a brand new song from a brand new Rodgers & Hammerstein show. This time Rodgers was not present, because he was in rehearsal. The show would not begin its tryout in New Haven until a week later - March 7th. So Frank was getting an enormous gift from the composer - first bite at the biggest song from the season's biggest hit before anybody else had heard it:
Some Enchanted Evening
You may see a stranger
You may see a stranger
Across a crowded room...
It's a pleasant arrangement by Axel Stordahl - at least compared to the pseudo-Hawaiian wreck he made of "Bali H'ai" - but neither singer nor arranger dig as deep as they do on, say, R&H's "Soliloquy". Frank's version got to Number Six, Perry Como's to Number One, and in this case it's hard to argue with the verdict of the marketplace.
On stage, Emile and later Nellie are, obviously, singing about themselves. Outside the show, the song is a little more ambiguous: it could be a moment of self-awareness in the here and now; or it could be advice to the young from the old and experienced, à la "Hello, Young Lovers"; or a rueful reflection from one who loved and lost, because instead of flying to her side he held back. Given those ambiguities, you'd think the piece would lend itself to any number of approaches. But Geoffrey Block, in his Richard Rodgers Reader, notes the formality of the tune's layout, and then adds, "The song cannot be sung any other way." He has a point. Is it really a standard? You could, in theory, do it up-tempo or as a bossa nova or a blues, but nobody does, then as now. Perhaps for Sinatra that was a problem: there was no way to personalize the number.
Fourteen years later, Frank returned to the song, and the show. By now he was running his own record company - Reprise - and he'd signed up most of his pals - Dean, Sammy, Bing, Keely, Rosie, Dinah, etc. In 1963 he inaugurated what he called the "Reprise Repertory Theatre" - in effect, cast albums of show scores by a cast you'd never see on any stage in the world: Sinatra, Martin, Jo Stafford, Debbie Reynolds, Allan Sherman, the McGuire Sisters... In a commercial sense, the project was meant to give Reprise "brand recognition". I mean, how many record buyers pay attention to the label? And how often does a label promote itself as a "company of players"? At the time, both Johnny Mathis and Bob Dylan were at Columbia, but it doesn't mean you want to hear them doing Gilbert & Sullivan. Yet Sinatra figured the idea of a Reprise family would help the fledgling corporation. And, more than that, he loved the music.
And so he picked four favorite Broadway scores from consecutive years - Finian's Rainbow (1947), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), South Pacific (1949) and Guys And Dolls (1950) - and then called up the rest of the gang. Morris Stoloff conducted the sessions and, for the first time in his life, Sinatra took a credit as producer - even though, as anyone at Columbia or Capitol would tell you, he'd produced his own records, to one degree or another, ever since that a cappella session Dick Rodgers had attended 20 years earlier. On these albums, he generally takes a ballad for himself, and then confines himself to some Rat Pack goofing - "We Open In Venice" with Dino and Sammy on Kiss Me, Kate; the "Fugue For Tinhorns" ("I got the horse right here") with Dean and Bing on Guys And Dolls. And his generosity to his fellow singers is rewarded with some great performances. For South Pacific, Sinatra gave "(I'm in love with) A Wonderful Guy" to Keely Smith, which has to be some sort of droll jest on his part. Keely is famous for her inability to sing the long vowel "i", as in her big hit "I Wish You Love" - or, as she sings it, "Ah Wish You Love". Period joke: Keely Smith goes to the doctor, who gets out his stethoscope and says, "Say 'ah' - but leave off the 'wish you love'."
It's a harder trick on this song: "Ah'm in love with a wonderful gaah" is nothing but "i" sounds: "Haah as a kaaht on the Fourth of Julaah." But it's not without its appeal, and, besides, you wouldn't want to miss Frank and Keely's sumptuous duet on "So In Love" from Kiss Me, Kate.
For this series, Sinatra revisited "Some Enchanted Evening" in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle. Considering Rodgers' fury with Frank's various liberties, he surely can't have complained about this version, in which singer and arranger treat the song with profound respect and humility, save for just a hint of rhythm as the song gets going. Even better is the very last track on the album - a reprise of the number as a duet with Rosemary Clooney. Frank and Rosie had sung together on and off over the years - the very charming "Peachtree Street" (co-written by Sinatra) is one of his better late Columbia tracks - and there's a real tenderness in the chemistry here. So I was stunned to discover that Rosie regards it as one of the worst things she ever did: "There are some things at Reprise - 'Some Enchanted Evening' among 'em - that I would rather bury," she told Merv Griffin in 1982:
I was even more stunned that she and Frank weren't even in the room together. Technologically-enabled, spliced-together duets were par for the course by the time Sinatra made two full CDs of them in the early Nineties, but in the Sixties you were generally side by side at the microphone. Not here. Rosie sang her part, and then Frank swung by a couple of weeks later and filled in the blanks, and some fellow stitched the two together. Oh, well. Maybe it's just the warmth of Clooney's voice, and a certain rueful self-awareness in Sinatra's, but I'll take this "Evening" over the others. It's also the version that inspired Bob Dylan's recent take on his Shadows In The Night CD.
Frank loved Rodgers' music and sang it until the end - "Bewitched", "Funny Valentine" and "Where Or When", all on his last studio album, Duets 2, in 1994. But he had a rather cooler relationship with Rodgers the man, and by all accounts the composer's reaction to such Sinatra staples as "The Lady Is A Tramp" was that he'd just as soon Frank had never gone anywhere near them. Rodgers liked his songs performed just the way he'd written them, and that's all. The concept of "interpretation" and "arrangement", the idea that two singers might respond differently to a tune, all this was alien to him. Other composers were more relaxed: Jule Styne, who wrote many of Sinatra's signature hits of the Forties, told me years ago, "Without the interpretation, there is no song." Which is true. In an appearance at the Cole Porter Library at the University of Southern California, Sinatra contrasted two of the most eminent of popular composers:
Mr Porter, unlike Mr Rodgers, let's say, didn't go out and get loaded because of an arrangement somebody else made of his music. Mr Porter was a very liberal man in that sense. He really didn't care how you arranged it as long as you did the song in its entirety.
That was Frank speaking on February 12th 1967. Six months later, just to underline the point, the singer gave Rodgers a reason to go out and get really loaded. After a two-decade relationship with the song, Sinatra takes his leave with the all-time worst version of "Some Enchanted Evening" he - or quite possibly anybody else - has ever recorded.
It starts, unsuspectingly, with a somewhat bland if hokey intro, and then there's Frank, sounding as sincere as he does with Rosie:
Some Enchanted Evening...
And immediately, in the fill, the band repeat the phrase in a manic melodramatic frenzy that would be just perfect if, on this particular enchanted evening, you saw a stranger across a crowded room and decided to inflict multiple stab wounds on her. And then Frank, still very sincere and legato, sings the second line:
You may see a stranger...
And the band do their frenzied manic stab-wound reprise all over again. And they do it yet again until Frank gets to "across a crowded room", at which point the chart lurches into what sounds like a parody of a finger-snappy swinger by someone who doesn't know how to orchestrate:
Sinatra isn't even trying for real swing. By the time he gets to the middle section - "Who can explain it?" - he's so pulled the song apart that the words no longer appear to fit the music. He keeps it up almost to the end:
Some Enchanted Evening
When you find your true love
When you feeeeeel her call you
Across a crowded room
Then flaaaaaaah to her side
Make her your own
Or through your life
You gonna dream all alone
Once you have found her, never let her go
Once you have found her, never never never
Never let her go...
That last bit Sinatra does in a sing-songy yo-yo that reduces it to gibberish, but he's not done. The band decides this would be a perfect time for some more manic stabbing, and then there's a big rallentando and Frank, as if to prove that (the previous two minutes notwithstanding) he knows how to sing, reprises the coda unaccompanied, bellowing into the silence:
Never never never never
Never let her
And the band comes back to close it out.
What the hell was he thinking?
Well, it's not clear on this particular night that he was thinking anything. The arranger was H B Barnum, who's worked with a lot of talent - Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls, the Four Tops and the Hues Corporation, Phil Collins and Puff Daddy... But there doesn't seem any obvious reason why in 1967 H B Barnum should have been Frank Sinatra's go-to guy for "Some Enchanted Evening".
"We were just experimenting," the producer Jimmy Bowen told Charles Granata. "We tried to do stuff differently, which you've got to do if you're going to do something that you've done a lot."
But go back to what Sinatra was saying a couple of months earlier about how Rodgers didn't care for different arrangements of his music. For almost half-a-century the rumor has been that Frank recorded this appalling chart of the composer's most cherished song precisely in order to get under his skin: Hey, if he's so uptight about arrangements of his tunes, let's really give him a nosebleed. Jimmy Bowen denies it. "Some Enchanted Evening", he said, "was just H B and me and Frank in there messing around. People took it as [a backhand slap to Rodgers] later. I remember people saying that to me, and I said, 'To tell you the truth, I didn't even know who wrote it.' That's not what I was thinking."
But that doesn't really explain how Frank Sinatra and H B Barnum wound up in the same room together in the first place. There aren't many arrangers who wrote just one chart for a Sinatra solo studio record and never got asked back: Raymond Paige for Brahms' Lullaby in 1944, Dick Jones for "Can't You Just See Yourself?" and Alvy West for "It All Came True" in 1947, Mitchell Ayres for "Once In Love With Amy" in 1948, Norman Leyden for "American Beauty Rose" in 1950 ...and H B Barnum 17 years later.
And here's the thing: in the intervening years that Barnum/Sinatra un-"Enchanted Evening" has stayed in print and widely available - while the masterly Riddle/Sinatra performance has all but vanished. Usually around this point, I say, à propos "The Song Is You" or "I'll Be Seeing You", that there's a definitive ballad treatment and a definitive up-tempo version and they're both by Frank. In this case, there's a beautiful "Enchanted Evening" and one of the absolute worst, and they're both by Frank.
Some Enchanted Evening
You may see a stranger
Who claims he's an arranger
Across a crowded studio...
And somehow you know, you know even then, that you should have stuck with Nelson Riddle...
When rock was young, and Harrison Ford was serenading Cindy Williams, "Some Enchanted Evening" was shorthand for squaresville. But Bob Dylan now is older than Ezio Pinza was then - and there is something poignant about the man who insisted "The Times They Are A-Changin'" finding something in the squarest of showtunes that is for all time. Happy seventieth birthday.
~Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger ...across a crowded lido deck, on the second annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise. We'll be sailing from Vancouver through Alaska's beautiful Inside Passage to Ketchikan and Glacier Bay this September, and, among the attractions, we can promise you a special live-music edition of our Song of the Week. But cabins are going amazingly fast, and, as with most travel plans, the price is more favorable and the accommodations more congenial the earlier you book.
Mark's book A Song For The Season contains the stories behind many beloved songs from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" - and don't forget, when you order through the SteynOnline bookstore, Mark will be happy to autograph it to your loved one. Also: if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, remember to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member pricing on that book and over forty other Steyn Store products.
The above-mentioned Mark Steyn Club is now approaching its second birthday. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of it, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.