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A Betting Man

Bells Are Ringing

music by Jule Styne, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directed by Tina Landau, and starring Faith Prince
at the Plymouth Theatre, New York City

Jule Styne, the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley composer, had a bustling career that ran for more than half a century, before he died, at the age of eighty-eight, in 1994. If he’s known at all among the young today, it’s probably for scattered melodies from his mid-to-late work—like “People,” from Funny Girl (1964), which gets occasional play on oldies stations, or “Small World,” from Gypsy (1959), as sung by Johnny Mathis, whose numerous hits seem to keep getting reshuffled as late-night-television “special offers.” But to those of an older generation who recall his earlier triumphs, Styne inspires a solid, rooted loyalty. He was one of the composers who devised the background music for the strangest, most far-flung homecoming in our nation’s history, the one in which America’s boys in uniform—the sons of coal-miners, factory hands, tobacco farmers, cattle ranchers—returned from bloody sites as remote as they were unpronounceable: Corregidor, Tulagi, Bizerte, Avranches.

For Styne, it all came together during the Second World War. He teamed up with Sammy Cahn, the lyricist with whom he would form his richest partnership. He befriended and began collaborating with Frank Sinatra, who was of course a songwriter’s dream: a singer of gifts so great that he might plausibly launch hits for decades to come. And—less tangibly, but most notably—he captured the national moment, creating melodies that would later define and memorialize a tumultuous, ultimately triumphant era.

Styne’s music was heartsore and hopeful. “I’ll walk alone,” Dinah Shore sang, her chaste solitude a pledge of fidelity to soldiers thousands of miles away. “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week,” Sinatra lamented, to a world whose workaday routines had been upended. “It’s been a long, long time,” Kitty Kallen sighed, in an immensely popular recording issued at the tag end of the war.

The man behind these tunes led an unexpected life—easy where you might have predicted it would be hard, and hard where it ought to have been easy. As a composer, Styne was often spared the birth pangs of artistic creation. Melodies came to him—as various collaborators attest—rapidly and with seeming effortlessness. Stephen Sondheim, who worked with Styne on Gypsy (fitting words to Styne’s melodies), marveled at the man’s facility: “The only thing annoying about Jule’s work habits is how fertile he is…. Jule would rather write a brand-new song than rewrite one that has good things but isn’t quite there.” Yet as one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, Styne struggled with prosperity. He was forever in debt. A compulsive gambler, he let hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of dollars slip through his hands. While many men in his circle reveled in the raffish atmosphere of the high-stakes poker table and the racetrack, most of them lacked Styne’s hell-bent need to pursue Lady Luck into dangerous terrain; he lived with constant threats of violence from irate, unpaid bookies. At times the joys of music-making clearly were secondary to the enticements of the racetrack—no melody so beguiling as the clatter of horses’ hooves.

It’s one of the great ironies of Broadway that Frank Loesser, rather than Jule Styne, provided the music to Guys and Dolls, with its celebration of the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” In a fairer world, Styne could have squared accounts with his bookies through the proceeds for songs like “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” He could have fulfilled the gambler’s perennial dream of a last-minute reprieve—the one that turns all losing bets into winners.

Like Irving Berlin, another creator of quintessentially American popular music, Jule Styne was an immigrant. He was born in London in 1905, the son of the proprietor of a butter-and-egg store. The family lived above the store. His name at birth was Julius Stein, which he later modified in order to differentiate himself from a namesake already established in the music business. The Stein family moved from London to Chicago in 1912. For the future songwriter, the move was providential. Although he would eventually make his living, and construct a life, in Manhattan (with a long Hollywood interlude), he remained permanently grateful for the verve and ferment of the Chicago music scene in the Twenties. In 1976, surveying his career, Styne said, “Listen, whatever music I write, whatever musical intuition I have, it was all made in Chicago. I’ve drawn on Chicago for show after show…. Between the blacks and whites, you have the whole jazz and big band hall of fame…. Think about it: never before and never since has so much musical talent been gathered in any one spot on earth, at any one period. God, it was a feast.” While still a teenager, he played piano in burlesque houses, formed his own band, took up with Benny Goodman and Bix Beiderbecke. Just turned twenty, he wrote a song, “Sunday,” that quickly became a national phenomenon, selling half a million copies of sheet music alone.

Styne’s life and career paralleled Berlin’s in various ways: ancestral roots in Orthodox Russian Judaism; a childhood of poverty, lived under the shadow of more prosperous aunts and uncles; early success; a pair of widely spaced marriages (both men married Gentiles); a durably youthful appearance, coupled with abundant reserves of natural energy, which rendered him seemingly immune to the passing years. And yet for all the inner turmoil suggested by Styne’s lifelong addiction to gambling, as well as his volatile temper, his work was dependably sunnier than Berlin’s. Jule Styne’s music is rarely heartbreaking. If he had his despairing moments, they rare- ly fired the composer in him; whenever he looked into the abyss, he stopped whistling. In his best songs, usually wedded to Sammy Cahn’s lyrics—songs like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”—an exquisite melody dulcifies whatever pain the singer’s words express. The speaker of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” has a problem—call it romantic suggestibility, a hair-trigger heart—but Styne’s pretty, gently cascading tune reminds us that there are worse afflictions: love has its compensations.

Styne also lacked the autonomy that Berlin achieved by writing his own lyrics. Some pop melodists—one thinks of Hoagy Carmichael—preferred to leave the words to others and yet were able, in a pinch, to turn a serviceable phrase. (Carmichael’s lyrics to “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “Rockin’ Chair” are more than serviceable—they’re evocative and affecting.) But Styne was wholly reliant on others to make his songs complete. This unavoidable dependence, combined perhaps with an unprepossessing appearance—the bespectacled Styne stood five feet five—may have enhanced a natural instinct toward accommodation and subordination. Although he had a flaring temper, he could be bullied—by Sinatra, among others. It was like Styne to show less bitterness than amusement about his long stint as a Hollywood factotum: “I wrote five or six songs for each picture. I wrote country-and-western music. I wrote for cattle and mules and pigs and dogs. I did just about everything I was asked to do.”

No doubt his versatility encouraged a bent for adaptation. His childhood training was in classical piano. (He was something of a prodigy, and played with the Detroit and St. Louis symphonies before entering his teens.) But he soon branched out as bandleader, voice instructor (to Shirley Temple, among others), conductor—whatever anybody needed. Only after he teamed up with Cahn did it become clear that his real genius lay in the musical equivalent of the short story—the narrative-carrying tune that unfolded in two or three minutes.

As his career clarified, Styne’s personal life grew murkier and messier. In 1927 he had married Ethel Rubenstein, the daughter of wealthy Chicago kosher caterers. It wasn’t long before Jule determined that he didn’t love Ethel and never would. A divorce seemed called for, but Ethel and her family balked. The marriage limped along and the Stynes wound up with two sons, to whom the ever-overextended Jule, flying from theater to racetrack, seems to have been an absentee father. And he had an eye for pretty women. The marriage wasn’t formally dissolved until 1952.

In the end, Styne appears to be one of those artists fated to leave scant record of themselves. Although he inspired enormous goodwill among his collaborators (one can imagine him as a “great guy” among the guys, and a “darling man” to the actresses he worked with), few felt any impulse to record him for posterity. The literature of mid-century Broadway and Tin Pan Alley is now quite extensive, and growing at a healthy rate, but for someone of Styne’s enormous success—composer of some two dozen Broadway shows, dozens of tunes on the Hit Parade, an Oscar for best song (“Three Coins in a Fountain”), a Tony for best musical (Hallelujah, Baby!)—he is remarkably little represented. And the picture of him that emerges from his one biography—Theodore Taylor’s Jule: The Story of Composer Jule Styne, published in 1979—is hazy. More and more, Styne has become his songs. Happily, they stand up well, and a handful of them seem to inhabit the territory belonging to songs that are something more than a “standard”: songs that are a standard-plus, that remind us what we mean by standard. “Time After Time,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” (to me, perhaps the most moving of all Sinatra recordings), “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “The Party’s Over”—these are some of the most memorable popular songs America has produced.

There was perhaps a hint of ruefulness to Styne’s often-repeated declaration that a song composer is only as good as the people he works with. Given how much effort Styne put into creating Broadway musicals and how few of them survive, it’s tempting to conclude that Styne didn’t get to work with the best people. But that wouldn’t be true. He worked with whomever he wanted, and his choice of collaborators is impressive: Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Sammy Cahn, Bob Merrill, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, George Abbott. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his projects were not always well thought out, or he worked with the best when they were not in best form. Most Broadway aficionados agree that only in Gypsy, to which Sondheim provided wonderful lyrics, did Styne rise to the theatrical excellence his gifts promised.

That’s a judgment intended to be challenged by all the talents behind the big-budget, good-looking revival of Bells Are Ringing currently at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre. The original musical, with book and lyrics by Comden and Green, opened on Broadway on November 29, 1956, and ran for 925 performances. Previously, I knew Bells Are Ringing only as a movie starring a disarming, charming, somewhat chunky Judy Holliday and a smooth, unaffecting Dean Martin in the role of a blocked writer. This is the first Broadway revival and the Fifties setting is retained. It’s the tale of a young woman employed by a telephone answering service who keeps meddling in the lives of her clients, initially to chaotic and ultimately to happy effect.

The revival, directed by Tina Landau, has an able star, Faith Prince, in the Judy Holliday part. Prince echoes many of Holliday’s distinctive touches—the genial growls, the deft stop-and-start indecisions of movement, the girlish sighs of relief—but emerges as an appealing presence in her own right. She also sings far better than Holliday (who, aware of her limitations, initially stipulated that she would sing no ballads). The rest of the cast is also generally better—more varied, or subtle, or simply funnier—than their film counterparts.

That said, it must also be said that this well-oiled revival creaks. The show, with its limp one-liners and no-longer-novel novelty songs, serves as an illustration of just how sizable is the task of resuscitating a musical that probably seemed somewhat dated and formulaic at its première. The result falls between two modes, lacking either the bite of relevancy or the self-contained quaintness of a charming period piece.

What’s best about the show is its splashy, inventive use of color, in the sets and lighting and costumes. The stage handsomely evokes and tames those bold, runaway hues of the Fifties—the lurid Technicolor movies, the wildly errant early color television sets—that lend a sort of brashness to memories of what might otherwise be recalled as a placid decade. (I’ve asked a number of friends, born like me in the Fifties, whether they recall their initial exposure to color television, and most of them do. In my own case, I was invited into the house of the first family on our block to purchase a color set. I remember staring in bedazzled awe—much like what Dorothy and her Oz friends felt when at last they entered the Emerald City—at a pair of green Twinkies.)

Few things in the world encourage idle, rich speculation like the vision of a flourishing system or culture being supplanted by a more powerful one. So the historian of Latin America may conjecture endlessly about how Aztec civilization might have evolved if the conquistadors had remained on their own side of the Atlantic. So the zoologist wonders what further miraculous creatures might have emerged in Australia—birthplace of egg-laying mammals—if English settlers, bearing cargoes of English fauna, had only put off their arrival by a few million years. And so the fan of Tin Pan Alley ponders where the American pop song might have gone if rock music hadn’t appeared.

With rock’s arrival, Tin Pan Alley lost its primacy. It wasn’t long before it quit serving as the natural outlet for young composers brimming over with romantic yearnings. Rock became, in its various guises, the propulsive musical engine behind radio, TV, films. Whenever I travel around the country, I’m struck, spinning the radio dial, by how thoroughly rock monopolizes the airwaves. Of course niche markets are still catered to (the country-and-western station, the Christian station, the all-chat-all-the-time station), but they are walled in on either side by rock’s steady backbeat. Oddly—sadly—the one deserving niche that seems to go unfilled is the one for devotees of the traditional pop song, the music of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Warren, Kern, Rodgers, Styne.

Other causes, besides rock, obviously lie behind the pop song’s decline; there is plenty of room for debate about contributory factors. What is inarguable is that something fatal happened to the pop song after the Second World War. In American Popular Song, one of the few books in the field that might be called a classic, Alec Wilder marked 1950 as the “end of an era.” Obviously, many beautiful songs were composed after 1950, some of them classics of the genre: “All the Way,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Here’s that Rainy Day,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Moon River,” “The Man that Got Away.” Yet their beauty feeds upon their comparative rarity. They have the hardy fragility of autumn roses.

They are beautiful, as well, for a certain shared something that would be difficult (even, my guess is, for a musicologist) to isolate and identify. The songs of the Fifties sound different from the songs of the Forties and Thirties and Twenties. The pop song was in flux when it—effectively—died. Where and how might it have flowered if the most creative popular musicians of a new generation had devoted themselves to pop rather than to rock?

Fortunately, rock has its own attractions, and to my mind American popular music, in the broadest sense, would be much diminished without recordings like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly,” Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby.” Still, I can’t help mourning the decline of the traditional pop song. Its passing is particularly marked in a career like Jule Styne’s, which began so early and ended so late. His first hit, “Sunday,” belongs to the era of “Tea for Two” and the Model T. A later song like “People” is contemporaneous with the Rolling Stones’ “Sister Morphine” and manned space capsules. His finest work of the Fifties and Sixties—songs like “All I Need Is the Girl” and “Who Am I Now”—shimmers with possibilities of further possibilities.

I must confess that listening to Barbra Streisand singing “People,” while a pleasure, isn’t one I feel a frequent need to indulge in. But if you step away from the words, the voice, the orchestration, if you attend to the song as a streamlined melody—a solo piano piece, played by a master like Bill Evans—the music is revealed as fresh, odd, open. Like so many of the best pop songs of the Fifties and even Sixties, it’s a melody that leaves behind haunting reverberations—the echoes of all the sweet and surprising and satisfying songs you’ve never heard. The ones that never got written.

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