Cole Porter at 128: Five Enduring Songs

Yesterday was the 128th anniversary of the birth of Cole Porter (1891-1964). Born in Peru, Indiana to a wealthy family, Porter rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s as one of Broadway’s greatest songwriters. His sublime, distinctive melodies and dizzyingly sophisticated lyrics—the delightfully comic portmanteau, ”Tin-Pantithesis,” is just one example—continue to endure even as the cultural references in his crackling list songs, like You’re the Top, fade. In this way, Porter’s work now falls …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

The American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 89 today. In Sondheim’s songs, music, lyric, character, and dramatic situation blend seamlessly and inseparably. The kind of plot-driven Broadway musical championed in the 1940s and 50s by Rodgers and Hammerstein reached its zenith of sophistication in the works of Sondheim, which include Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). These are symphonic scores filled with motivic threads. The songs …

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Five Great Songs by Jule Styne

Today marks the 113th anniversary of the birth of the great American songwriter, Jule Styne (1905-1994). Born in London, Styne grew up in Chicago, the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants. He was a child prodigy pianist, performing with the orchestras of Chicago and Detroit before age ten. Later, he played jazz, withdrawing from the concert stage because of the limitations of his small hands. He created the scores for some of the Broadway …

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Bernstein at 100: “West Side Story”

Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). As a conductor, Bernstein brought a distinctive, youthful dynamism to the podium, producing performances which sizzled with “edge-of-your-seat” energy. He championed adventurous new American works during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (from 1958 to 1969), and sparked a revival of interest in the music of Gustav Mahler. As a composer, he synthesized a variety of musical styles, from …

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“There is No Music”: Ira Gershwin’s Poignant Remembrance?

George Gershwin passed away on this date (July 11) in 1937 at the age of 38. Doctors diagnosed brain cancer as the the cause of death. The songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin produced over two dozen scores for Broadway and Hollywood. They are credited with elevating the sophistication of Broadway theater as an art form with shows such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Porgy …

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Three Excerpts from “The Band’s Visit”

At last Sunday’s 72nd annual Tony Awards, The Band’s Visit came away with a special distinction. In addition to sweeping the Tonys by winning ten awards, it was one of only four musicals in the history of Broadway to win these six big awards: Best Musical, Best Book (Itamar Moses), Best Score (David Yazbek wrote both music and lyrics), Best Actor in a Musical (Tony Shalhoub), Best Actress in a Musical (Katrina Lenk), and Best Direction of …

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The Art of the List Song

Here at The Listeners’ Club, lyrics normally take a backseat to music. But today, let’s bring some of the Broadway musical theater’s most exhilarating lyrics into focus with a brief survey of the list song. List songs are built around extensive inventories of people, places, and things. They open the door to lyric writing filled with sparkling virtuosity and unexpected rhyme. Surprise is a key element of humor, and in this respect the …

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