By Marilyn Lester . . .
As singer-pianist and American Songbook archivist and scholar, Michael Feinstein noted in his latest Standard Time concert at Zankel Hall on February 15, Hollywood’s Golden Age, quite a hefty number of standards originated in film—far more than from another fertile source, the Broadway stage. Growing up loving films, these tunes were circulating in his head even as a young boy, and in curating this particular set, he chose well the songs that reveal in their excellence why the American Songbook, is, yes—Great.
There could only be one number to lead off the evening and that’s the truly iconic “Hooray for Hollywood,” (Richard Whiting, Johnny Mercer), an up-tempo lovefest of a number written in 1937 for the film, Hollywood Hotel. Because the lyric is so specific to the time, over the years there have been various changes and updates. Feinstein, true to the original did insert some special lyrics, which is his wont from time to time. Another still wildly popular Whiting tune, with Johnny Mercer, “Too Marvelous for Words” for Ready, Willing and Able (1937) was presented in a toe-tapping swinging arrangement. And in the realm of absolutely iconic, a slow, emotive arrangement of the Academy Award-winning “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Leigh Harline, Ned Washington) for Walt Disney’s 1940 film, Pinocchio, simply couldn’t be left out.
Music to the ears is that Feinstein almost always sings the complete song: the verse and chorus. Where many singers choose to eliminate the former, it’s delightful to hear how the writers intended to set up the body of the work. Such was the case with “Pennies from Heaven” (Arthur Johnston, Johnny Burke) from the 1936 film of the same name. A delightful touch was the band singing the refrain, “pennies from heaven.” The band, consisting of the sublime Tedd Firth on piano, with David Finck, bass and Bryan Carter, drums, featured in the spotlight in “It’s a Most Unusual Day” (Jimmy McHugh, Harold Adamson) for A Date with Judy (1948), especially demonstrating in that number their jazz chops and musical prowess. Another interesting facet of Hollywood’s Golden Age was the presentation of lesser-known songs from great writers. A perfect example was “I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side” by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer, sung by Fernando Lamas to Esther Williams in the 1953 film Dangerous When Wet.
Although Hollywood could be a cash cow for tunesmiths, there was a drawback: unlike Broadway, writers didn’t own their songs. The movie studios exercised control, a reason Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart weren’t eager to remain out West. Taking the piano, Feinstein illustrated with “Blue Moon,” a 1933 song by R&H intended for the film Hollywood Party. The melody was originally called, “Prayer (Oh Lord, make me a movie star)” and unpublished. The song was then shifted to 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama with Hart writing new lyrics and an alternate title, “It’s Just That Kind of Play.” It was cut from the film. Hart wrote a third lyric for the retitled melody, “The Bad in Every Man,” also in 1934 and unused. Finally, in the same year, Hart wrote a fourth set of lyrics and thus “Blue Moon” was licensed to the “Hollywood Hotel” radio program as its theme song.
A favorite writer of Feinstein’s, Harry Warren, was well-represented. Warren was one of the most prolific of Hollywood song men, and one who Feinstein came to know well personally.
Feinstein offered his “About a Quarter to Nine,” written with frequent partner, Al Dubin for the 1935 film Go Into Your Dance, the novelty song, “Jeepers Creepers” (with Johnny Mercer) for 1938’s Going Places and the fun “Lulu’s Back in Town” (with Dubin) for the 1935 film Broadway Gondolier. Of course, there was also the prolific Irving Berlin, who wrote for both Broadway and film, including the legendary “White Christmas.” Feinstein at the piano also offered “It Only Happens When I Dance with You,” written in 1948 for Easter Parade. The lushness of Feinstein’s playing was well-served in “Change Partners,” Berlin’s 1938 tune for Fred and Ginger in Carefree.
A big, big finale came with a swinging “Lullaby of Broadway,” Warren and Dubin’s ode to the City of New York and its nightlife denizens, introduced in Gold Diggers of 1935. Warren was from Brooklyn, and according to Feinstein, never lost his love or longing for his hometown in all the years he was in Hollywood. This arrangement of changing tempos in the song reflected the energy of the Apple in its hustle and bustle, putting a cap on a program in which a very relaxed and supremely personable Feinstein never sounded better. His vocal tone, perhaps the most mellow to date, well-served a curated collection of songs that brought the golden age of Hollywood to glorious life.