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Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan

11 Apr

Helen Morgan: a strong legacy for today's torch singers

It’s been a fine week on BBC4 for lovers of old- and new-style torch singing. The channel’s celebration of the Great American Songbook was stuffed with profiles, documentaries and performances rich in the genre, from a biography of Ella Fitzgerald to a welcome repeat of Walk on By, a series on the history of popular song.

One of the highlights was a BBC4 Sessions concert featuring Gwyneth Herbert giving an exemplary take on the Ruth Etting classic, “Love Me or Leave Me”, Melody Gardot’s exquisitely underplayed “Over the Rainbow”, and a great “September in the Rain” from Sharleen Spiteri – all demonstrating that the torch song has never been in better hands.

But most poignant of all was the excellent Clint Eastwood-produced exploration of the life of lyricist Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me. One hundred minutes sped past in a succession of comments and performance snippets – Julie Andrews, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Maude Maggart (singing a wonderfully touching “Skylark”, accompanied by Jamie Cullum.)

During one of the numerous interview clips of Mercer talking about his craft he mentioned, in passing, Helen Morgan as an example of somebody you would write a particular type of song for. It struck a real chord. Morgan was briefly a huge Broadway star and created the role of Julie in Jerome Kern’s Showboat. But even by the time Mercer referred to her in the 1970s, she had been dead for more than 30 years, and today her name is scarcely heard.

Her style of singing in a light, throbbing soprano, is light years from modern popular taste. Yet Morgan was one of the first of the great torch singers. And a few weeks ago, I had no hesitation in drawing a comparison between Jessie Buckley’s intense, touching way with torch songs in her performance at Pizza on the Park, and Morgan’s way of luring the listener into her lamentations of love gone wrong.

When Helen Morgan’s picture flashed across the television screen, it reminded me of what sparked my interest in the torch idiom over two decades ago. So after focusing on some of the young singers who have piqued my curiosity in recent weeks, here’s a trip back to the roots of the genre.

Helen Morgan was a tragic figure – not in a hell-raising Amy Winehouse way, although she was equally profligate with her talent. When things got too troubled, she’d quietly have another brandy, eventually fulfilling a destiny that was pretty much prescribed in her first starring role as the doomed Julie. But it says much for her legacy that every now and then, a modern performance can still evoke her name and a nod back down the years to a great, if shooting, star.

Helen Morgan sings “Bill”

This is an article I wrote about her in the late 1980s, which hasn’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a bit stodgy and essay-ish in places – and naïve in its approach – but I’m posting it here because in many ways it sums up the elements of torch-singing that I continue to find so compelling – and because I can illustrate it with video, something that would have seemed impossible back then!

Why Was She Born? – The Legacy of Helen Morgan (1988)

Morgan's voice had a unique, pleading quality

Since its plaintive genesis in the early 1920s, the torch song has proved a consistent link between a galaxy of female singers who in other respects could hardly differ more greatly. As an idiom, it provides a historic, if unlikely bridge from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, from Judy Garland to Kiri te Kanawa, from Ruth Etting to Shirley Bassey and from Jane Froman to Dusty Springfield. None of these ladies has ever limited themselves to the genre of the torch song. But each at one time or another has sung from the point of view of the woman on the losing side in love.

If Fanny Brice lit the first torch with her rendering of the classic “My Man”, (“Mon Homme”), consider how Billie Holiday interpreted the same song as a blues number and made it in turn her own. And if Edith Piaf ran the gamut of emotions, she certainly included in her repertoire chansons of a very torchy sentiment. All of these singers at one time or another have reflected through the torch song the suffering of a woman at the hands of a man who does nothing but let her down, but whom she can’t help loving.

Just as the idiom has become more lush and plangent, more downright dramatic, so it has tended to obscure its quieter and more tremulous origins. Now that Dame Kiri has extended her range to include classic torch by George Gershwin, and with a revival of interest in Dusty Springfield’s fulsome entreaty, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, not to mention the interest that never went away in Garland bemoaning “The Man That Got Away”, it is high time to re-evaluate the contribution of the women who started it all with such sentiments as “Why Was I Born?”

With the release of a full-length, universally well-received recording of Showboat, it might be appropriate to focus on the woman who made its two classic torch songs, “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” her own. Her name was Helen Morgan and she might be even less remembered here had not Robyn Archer selected her as an example for her show A Star is Torn.

Helen Morgan made these two songs her own by stamping the torch style with her own delicate lilting soprano. At least two recordings of her renderings survive and are reasonably available. The later pressings can be heard on what amounts to the first cast recording of Showboat which is actually a record of the show’s 1932 revival.

They are remarkable not only for their clarity but for the freshness and immediacy of Morgan’s performances at a distance of over half a century. Her voice has little in common with modern popular tastes but through its unique pleading quality and her astute use of a natural huskiness on key lyrics, it is quite heart-rending in its subtlety.

“I See Two Lovers” – a quintessential Helen Morgan performance

Anybody seeking for an introduction to her lamentably brief recording career should start right here. The extraordinary effect she achieved owes much to her own talent and the light orchestra or band backing favoured by artistes of the day, and little to the dramatic and histrionic lamentations of her future sisters in song. Perhaps the closest we can get these days is to listen to Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies. This is at once a pastiche and wholly authentic.

Song of  Dreamer: great close-ups of a troubled torch singer

Although tracks by Morgan turn up from time to time on compilation albums (FLAPPERS, VAMPS AND SWEET YOUNG THINGS, Living Era 1982, AJA 5015), it is largely thanks to the Take Two label that a sizeable volume of her work has been gathered together. They have compiled a generous selection for the album HELEN MORGAN-Legacy of a Torch Singer, (1986, TT220) although it is rather biased in favour of her earlier material. Much of this is of interest more for its definitive period flavour than as classic torch singing.

It is really in the sessions recorded in the thirties that the depth of Morgan’s voice had matured considerably from the tremulous high notes which mark songs such as “Just Like a Butterfly”. But there are some real gems on this album, most especially the hauntingly regretful “I See Two Lovers”, which also turns up on the album FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN – Classic Female Vocalists of the ‘30s (Conifer 1987, TQ 155). This recording demonstrates to perfection the wistful catch in Morgan’s voice, a sadness which she was able to convey through restraint rather than high drama.

For a more general introduction, Take Two dips into the careers of four singers including Helen Morgan on its album THE ORIGINAL TORCH SINGERS 91980 TT207). The others are Fanny Brice, Libby Holman and Ruth Etting. The latter was probably the most prolific female recording artist of the thirties and numerous collections of her material are widely available. She seems to have endured the test of time more readily than Helen Morgan, while Fanny Brice is better know as Funny Girl these days.

Helen Morgan was a performance chanteuse who, apart from her major stage roles, sang in nightclubs and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies. She might have been a great film actress but after an auspicious debut in Applause the right parts never came along. She might have been an even greater recording artist but performing was her forte and she did other things only as time permitted. Nevertheless diligent searching can result in the discovery of rare pressings, including previously unreleased radio broadcasts which are increasingly becoming a source for the nostalgia buff.

Perhaps the greatest torch song of all is Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. Yet Morgan never recorded the song commercially. It would be nice to think that an unpublished pressing or wireless performance lurks in a vault somewhere awaiting discovery. In its original working, as sung by Morgan, it would undoubtedly be a far cry from the lavish interpretations of more recent times.

As it is, we can still appreciate the difference in concept between then and now by listening to Helen Morgan’s soufflé-light rendering of “Why Was I Born?” which in accordance with more modern tastes is usually belted out over a rich orchestral backing. Suddenly, to hear how it was originally performed is to hear how it should be performed. The surprise is genuinely moving.

And Helen Morgan perhaps more than any other singer of her generation comes closest to crossing the line between torch and blues. Not that her voice bore any resemblance to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. But listen to her interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny” and hear how the divide between them is not so great after all.

There was clearly a brief revival of interest in Helen Morgan’s career after her sad life was given typical Hollywood treatment in a 1954 biopic (The Helen Morgan Story, with Ann Blyth’s singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant, herself a great torch singer of the 1950s). Collections of her rarer recordings including standards like “Body and Soul” and “More Than You Know” were issued, usually pairing her off with Fanny Brice. There is also a 1969 album issued by RCA Victor in its vintage series which boasts a very discering selection of her material.

These recordings are obviously harder to come by but well worth seeking out. In many ways the quality of these pre-digital mastering issues is clearer than more recent efforts, mainly because the sound is completely true to the original.

Helen Morgan in characteristic pose atop a grand piano

Despite the quality of her more obscure material, the greatest testimony to her rare talent as a torch singer is her legacy of the show-stopping standards which enraptured her audience wherever she was performing, usually characteristically perched atop a grand piano. That such a quality can still capture the imagination after so many years is surely a reason for restoring Helen Morgan to her rightful place in the gallery of all-time-great female performers.

Love Me or Leave Me – a feature I wrote for Gay Times on the classic torch singers, from December 1991 read

Handing on the Torch – a piece for The Wire magazine, tracing torch singing from its roots to modern smart pop read

Happy 80th Birthday Stephen Sondheim – Your Leading Ladies Salute You

21 Mar

This piece draws on several interviews I’ve had during the last few years with Stephen Sondheim and many of the women (and Michael Ball!) who have sung his roles and songs so brilliantly on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s about just one aspect of his work, but I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man who has contributed so much to musical theatre – indeed, music itself – throughout the last half-century, as he celebrates a landmark birthday.

Barbara Cook: one of Sondheim's leading ladies

To say that Stephen Sondheim writes exceptionally well for female singers and actors is to deal in a partial truth. The inference is that his male characters are of secondary importance. And of course nobody playing Sweeney Todd, singing in the all-male ensemble of the much-neglected Pacific Overtures, starring as Company’s distressed Bobby or the equally troubled Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, or revelling in Giorgio’s glorious arias in Passion, has any need – or right – to feel short-changed. But the fact remains that his work has had a profound effect on the careers of many of the women who have been closely associated with his roles during the last 50 years.

Where would people like Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman – who cites him as the reason for her career choice, having been enraptured by the 1980 London production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane – be if their professional paths hadn’t encountered Sondheim’s trajectory at critical moments? Hugely successful, no doubt. Such wide-ranging talent will always out. But certainly missing the depth, the experience and the kudos of an indelible association with his work. Each in her way can testify to the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of his writing for the female performer, whether strictly in character or taking a particular song away from its theatrical context and turning it into a standalone, solitary gem that reveals yet more meaning beneath the lyrics and the intricate melodies.

And there is no getting away from the fact that in so many of his shows, the female characters often command the stage at critical moments. Follies, for all its multiple themes of nostalgia, the uneasy relationship between past and present, and coming to terms with the impact of time on youthful dreams, is also a celebration of the show girl in all her glory. Ben and Buddy have their show-stopping turns but much of the show’s bittersweet joy comes from the brilliant pastiche numbers and anthems that allow the women to relive their moments in the vaudeville spotlight: Sally’s torch-songs (“In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”), Phyllis’s acerbic, teasing burlesque number (“Ah, But Underneath,” which replaced the original and more complex “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” when the show finally reached London in 1987), Hattie’s poignant take on the rather grim realities of the hoofer’s life (“Broadway Baby”) and of course Carlotta’s show-business survival anthem, “I’m Still Here”.

Judi Dench: wracked masterpiece

Desirée Armfeldt is always the real focus of A Little Night Music while the relationship dramas unravel around her in three-time, culminating in the magnificent “Send in the Clowns” – Sondheim’s most popular and most abused hit – which marks her lowest ebb and the tragedy of bad timing. It’s become a calling card for every star who has played the role, from Glynis Johns and Jean Simmonds to Judi Dench. Sondheim told Dench, “It’s yours now,” when her wracked masterpiece of an interpretation was one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s 1995 revival. But Trevor Nunn’s recent production notably returned Desirée to young middle age with marvellous results. Hannah Waddingham gave a magnificently constrained performance in London, tears only falling in the final stanza to indicate the extent of her desolation. But here, too, is evidence of Sondheim’s ability to capture even a minor character in the moment: “The Miller’s Son”, sung by Petra the maid, is a perfect evocation of a young woman who knows exactly what her destiny is, and that however underwhelming the ultimate prospect of drooping bosoms and a matronly figure, that can wait a while. There are plenty of rosebuds to be gathered in the here and now.

In Company, bilious, vodka-hardened Joanne has one of the standout numbers in “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a lascerating attack on herself and her own kind. Others have sung it to great effect but for many people the original, Elaine Stritch, still has copyright on the role. Just check out the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the making of the 1970 cast album, as she wrestles with the song to the point of exhaustion, missing her mark, extemporising to Sondheim’s obvious dismay. Take after take slip by until you can almost taste the acrid, used-up atmosphere of the studio. Then she comes in the next morning and nails it with the first take of the day.

Elaine Stritch: has earned her copyright

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is one of the toughest three-act plays I’ve ever done, you know what I mean?” she told me in a 2008 interview. She calls Sondheim a “romantic realist”. And she’s still singing the song in her one-woman show 40 years later, better than ever.

“In this song he’s sending up a class of dame, of which I am also a member – or have been in my time. I hasten to add, I don’t Martini-lunch any more. So that’s a big kick that I get out of it. When I sing the song, I am part of that whole bunch and I know about them. I am absolutely staggered, dazzled by his ability, his talent. Ability is what I really mean. It’s so believable and so unbelievable at the same time. Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me.”

Bernadette Peters: “Not a Day Goes By” is an emotional peak

For Bernadette Peters (Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George and The Witch in Into the Woods), Maria Friedman (Fosca in Passion and Dot/Marie), Julia McKenzie (The Witch, Sally and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd), the value of gift of a Sondheim role has been proved time and again. Each can, in many ways, define her career by the importance of his work in allowing them to demonstrate not only their talents as singers but as dramatic actors and comedians. And they have also proved adept at developing his songs away from their musical theatre roots. Peters’ signature tune, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) is invariably an emotional peak in her concerts, for example. Like Friedman, Barbara Cook and many others, her repertoire is enriched by the Sondheim canon.

Patti LuPone has taken Bobby’s last-act song of affirmation, “Being Alive” from Company, and turned it into a virtuoso powerhouse performance. Again, this is possible because of the truth in a lyric that finally resolves the character’s anguish at the end of the show. Given the wealth of female songs in the canon, this might smack of poaching. Michael Ball says, “I always have an argument with him [Sondheim]. I tell him he writes the most amazing shows – difficult bloody things, most of them – and then he always gives the eleventh hour number to the women! That’s why I insisted on doing “Broadway Baby”. But take these songs out of the shows and they’re universal.”

Patti LuPone: virtuoso powerhouse performance

Sondheim’s double-whammy skills as a lyricist and composer lie at the heart of this quality in his work. A few years back in an interview for Gramophone magazine, he told me that a song is written to reflect a character’s state of mind at that particular moment in the play. If a singer can find something beyond that, which gives the song an external life outside the play, all well and good – but that will always be incidental to the song’s primary meaning and intention. “But to have the songs interpreted in different ways helps to keep them alive,” he said.

Julia McKenzie: “He’s a dramatist and a poet. And to the performer, the rewards are tremendous because every song is like a one-act play or at least, a soliloquy. “Losing My Mind” is a soliloquy, even though in Sally’s mind it is the epitome of a torch song. You can see precisely how her day progresses.”

Maria Friedman: “For me, everything he writes about comes back to a very basic thing: love – the desperate need of a human being to love and be loved. As an actor and a singer – I can’t distinguish which one leads the other – both co-exist perfectly when you’re doing one of his pieces because the demands on you are always truthful, honest. If you can get to the core of it, you just have to serve it, not do anything, and it will do the rest for you. But that means quite often you’ve got to be thinking two or three things at once. It’s layered, you’ll be saying “I don’t love you” at the same time as thinking “I wish I could love you”, “I did love you,” all together. On the face of it, it could be quite cold but underneath it’s layered with warmth and hope and yearning. Plus he’s the most extraordinary lyricist, the rhymes are dazzling, so you’ll be working on that at the same time, making sure that they ring and you don’t miss the internal rhymes. And he writes as we speak, so you have to understand how that woman would have talked and the music falls into place.”

Patti LuPone: His songs are very dramatic pieces in their own right, so I don’t have to create another story to sing them out of context. You always want the piece to be universal if it’s going to live and his work is really brilliant in that universal way: there’s that whole concept of theatre, emotion, love. That’s what makes something like “Being Alive” [Merrily We Roll Along] or “Loving You” [Passion] so perfect.

Elaine Stritch: “Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fake and what’s real. And like Shakespeare, every time you do good work, something new comes out of it. The quality of the material absolutely matters. I love his humour. It’s real humour – real: they call that wit!”

Barbara Cook: I’d known Stephen socially, through the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t actually do much of his work until Follies. I’d occasionally put a song in my act but I always felt that unless I did a whole Sondheim section, they didn’t really abut against the others. I thought of them as ‘art songs’. But when I did Follies [in concert, 1985], I fell deeply in love with his work, and a lot of that was to do with the quality of his lyrics, which are so universal and moving. They are witty and clever, of course, but most of all very emotional. They almost always say something that I want to say. Take “No More” [Into the Woods], a song I’ve been doing a lot in the last year or so. It seems to have a lot more meaning with the world in this difficult state:

“Can’t we just pursue our lives

With our children and our wives?

Till that happy day arrives,

How do you ignore

All the witches…”

link: Sondheim profile for Amazon.com

link: Sondheim article for Gramophone magazine

The Stephen Sondheim Society www.sondheim.org

Concert Review – Jessie Buckley at Pizza on the Park

15 Mar

It’s practically impossible for any singer to tackle “The Man That Got Away” without the distracting shade of Judy Garland lurking on the edge of the spotlight. But when Jessie Buckley stepped up to the mic at London’s Pizza on the Park on Saturday, nobody was interested in the ghost of an old legend. Why would you be, when such a vibrant living talent  materialises in front of your eyes?

If it wasn’t for the evidence of her slender frame and a pristine voice that has more than a hint of Doris Day at her youthful best, it would be hard to believe that Buckley is only 20. She’s already been runner-up in the BBC’s find-a-Nancy mission, I’d Do Anything (and now we see why Andrew Lloyd Webber could barely contain his exasperation when the public vote imposed a different leading lady on his production). And last year, she achieved the near-impossible feat of making shrill, shallow Anne Egerman a halfway sympathetic and complex character in Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music.

Hushing a busy room in a West End eatery on a Saturday night, and holding the audience’s attention through two sophisticated sets of standards is a tall order for the most experienced, battle-hardened singer. But from the first note, it’s clear that Buckley has the necessary tools – not just the pipes and an appealing, unfussy presentation but crucially in this environment, where the diners tend to know their music, an astonishingly mature flair for jazz.She rips up “Blue Skies”, “Birth of the Blues”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Take the A Train”, telling us what a privilege it is to be able to sing such great lyrics. Her phrasing is instinctive, adventurous and occasionally audacious – she’ll try anything , and usually pull it off. And her joy at unleashing this skill, recently discovered and relatively unexplored, free from the constraints of a musical theatre performance, is palpable.

Buckley’s pianist Joe Thompson tells us that he and double bassist Rob Rickenberg don’t care much for singers as a rule. They’re too troublesome and self-regarding. But Jessie, he says simply, has taught them both so much; this is praise indeed from a musician of Thompson’s calibre. The rapport between the three of them strikes sparks – and even if there is the odd moment when discipline dissolves into banter, it is clear that the performance is rooted in complete, mutual respect for each other’s musicality.

But it’s the ballads that linger longest as the memory of the evening fades. “The Man That Got Away” of course, stripped of all that Garland vibrato but losing nothing in the telling of the story – or the conviction that the singer is reliving it. When Buckley sings an intimately wistful “The Way You Look Tonight”, you feel you’re eavesdropping on her innermost thoughts. And when she gazes into the distance on “More Than You Know” she is, whether she knows it or not, joining the ranks of the finest torch-singers who trace their lineage back to the great Broadway star Helen Morgan.

Jessie Buckley is one of the last performers to grace the stage at Pizza on the Park. The room is to close in the summer, depriving London of a venue steeped in showbusiness history. Never mind the overpriced food and the so-so wine list that have been part of its idiosyncratic charm over the years – just catch a rising star in her element.

However, she will launch a new season of cabaret – Live at the Pheasantry – at The Pheasantry in London’s Kings Road on 13th June. She also plays the Delfont Room on 31st July and appears at The Stables near Milton Keynes on 20th August.