Sunday, February 02, 2014

Diverse Divas and the Art of Showbiz

In the early 1960s, one sang Celtic ballads in those folk clubs that used to thrive in New York, while one belted brassy numbers in Broadway theatres.  Friday night, thanks to synchronous scheduling in Atlanta's WABE 90.1, they gave retrospective interviews back-to-back, giving this listener a chance to reflect on what Jean Redpath and Elaine Stritch share.

Each lady claimed to have arrived in New York without a plan, wide-eyed and delighted to be there.  Redpath knew a bunch of songs from her native Scotland;  Stritch knew less than that. We got to hear her earliest recordings, and we can hear both a good natural voice, smooth and wide-ranged, and the horrible technique that brought her voice down to the same state as Lotte Lenya's -- "an octave below laryngitis." 

Stritch had some interesting advice, to "always work for someone smarter than you," or you'll just be drifting from job to job.  (Hal Prince in 1970, had heard this about her and invited her to join Company, saying: "Hi, I'm Hal Prince, and I'm smarter than you.")  Redpath spent a few years recording songs by Scotland's all-time poet laureate, Robert Burns, arranged by a brilliant and ambitious composer with ALS, who eventually communicated his musical ideas through mere twitches of his mouth. 

Each had stories to tell of famous friends in their early days.  "Garrison didn't have a staff back then," Redpath says of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, "and he was flying by the seat of his pants."  She mentions the times she spent with "Bobby" Dylan.  Stritch dropped names, surprising us with a suddenly flat statement: "Ethel Merman was a sad woman.  She felt unloved." 

About audiences, Redpath said, "If you can get them to laugh, they'll be ready to cry" for the serious stuff.  Stritch said, "Audiences want you to be wonderful.  They don't scare me."

Of the two, Redpath has the richer voice, a smoky one that seems to fade into air as it rises.  Stritch flirts with flat -- Sondheim himself told me (when I met him in 1977)  that her flat note on "We lo-o-ve you" in the Company cast album is terrible, but he and the producers left it in, because "that's theatre." 

In the end, we heard a recording of Stritch singing a song by Richard Rodgers for the movie of The Sound of Music, "Something Good."  It's a tiny song, consisting of a few phrases.  Stritch concludes her final recording with it:

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood  [this got a laugh], 
Perhaps I had a miserable youth,
But somewhere in my wicked miserable past,
There must have been a moment of truth.

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should.

So somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something --

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could

So somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something good.

Stritch sang these simple words simply, like a folk song, and hit the audience hard.  There is not so much distance between the two divas as I'd have thought. 

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