Bolcom & Morris
Swinging on a star
Every good song recital should have a theme, even if it's only "An Evening with Frank Sinatra." Otherwise how is the audience supposed to know what it's in for? So for Joan Morris and Bill Bolcom, the question is, Why did they choose "Swinging on a Star: Class of 1908" for their recital on Saturday, December 6, at Kerrytown Concert House?
"We needed a new focus," replies Morris by phone from a friend's apartment in New York, "and one hundred years ago were born Harold Rome, Johnny Green, and Johnny Burke. And they wrote such wonderful songs: 'Swinging on a Star,' 'South America, Take It Away,' and, of course, 'Body and Soul.'"
But why Burke's "Swinging on a Star"? Why not Green's "Body and Soul"? "Because it's the happiest title. And it's a great number: remember Bing Crosby singing it to those little kids in Going My Way? And it's hopeful-which is something we need now with the financial situation the way it is."
The current financial situation underlies some of Bolcom and Morris's non-1908 choices as well. "We'll also be doing 'Down in the Depths' by Cole Porter and 'Too Good for the Average Man' by Rodgers and Hart because they're so timely-again." Both songs come from shows that premiered in 1936-seven years into the Great Depression-and both are sung from the point of the view of the extremely wealthy. The Porter number is delivered by a rich widow who complains, "When the only one you wanted wants another/What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?" while "Too Good" was a duet for a Russian ballet impresario and a wealthy patroness who assert "Sing 'la and huzzah' for the poor folks/As long as the poor folks are your folks."
On the other side of the fence are songs like Rome's anticonsumer lament "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" from 1937's Pins and Needles, a revue commissioned by, of all people, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union-"I
use Coca Cola and Marmola/Crisco, Lesco, and Mazola/Ex-Lax and Vapex/So why ain't I got sex?" "South America, Take It Away," from 1946, lampoons the Latin dance styles then sweeping America: "Take back your conga, ay!, your samba, ay!, your rumba, ay-yi-yi!/Why can't you send us, ay!, a less strenu-, ay!, -ous number, ay-yi-yi!"
As a bonus, Bolcom and Morris will perform six of Bill's "minicabs." Miniwhats? "Miniature cabaret songs," explains Morris, "half-minute-long songs which Bill's publisher says are like fortune cookies. Some are very funny, and all of them are only six or eight bars long. Plus we'll do his 'Wall Street Rag,' because it, too, is timely-again."
[Originally published in December, 2008.]