PS Classics, the record label devoted to the heritage of theatre music and American popular song, turns its attention to Dorothy Fields in its latest album by singer Philip Chaffin, “Somethin’ Real Special: The Songs of Dorothy Fields.” PS Classics gave me permission to reprint the liner notes by Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston. Scroll down 10 paragraphs or so to read Yeston’s impression of the album, which has a street date of Nov. 12.
Lyricist-librettist Dorothy Fields (1905-1974) is a pillar in the pantheon of women musical-theatre songwriters, joining Kay Swift, Betty Comden, Lynn Ahrens, Carolyn Leigh, Carol Hall and few others who opened doors for new generations of women currently practicing. She wrote songs with industry giants for theatre revues and Cotton Club floorshows (with composer Jimmy McHugh), movie musicals (notably “Swing Time” with Jerome Kern, winning an Oscar) and eclectic and now mostly forgotten musicals from the Golden Age of the Book Musical (with composers Morton Gould, Arthur Schwartz and Sigmund Romberg). She co-wrote the libretto and (with composer Albert Hague) penned songs for the (again, mostly forgotten) 1959 Tony-winning Best Musical, Redhead, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starring Gwen Verdon. She was also a librettist, most notably writing Annie Get Your Gun, among other shows, with her brother Herbert.
Hard to believe it, but the same woman who co-wrote “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “The Sunny Side of the Street” and “The Way You Look Tonight” before World War II, blossomed anew in the 1960s writing songs for women characters who were desperately in search of love in a time when roles and definitions and boundaries for women were being challenged: With composer Cy Coleman, she penned 1966’s Sweet Charity (“Where Am I Going” is an essential American song from the period, and it’s on Chaffin’s album, full of brass) and Seesaw (1973).
Fields died three months after the December 1973 Broadway closing of Seesaw, a show that ran nine months and toured. The score includes a tortured, soul-searching soliloquy (“I’m Way Ahead”) by its leading lady, whose lover has left her (as Charity’s lover also left her at the end of Sweet Charity). I’m not sure how much of a hand Coleman had in shaping the anxious song, as Fields was ailing at the time of its writing, but its rich, confessional, frank messiness is beguiling and almost expressionistic, even if a reference to “each erogenous zone” is a bit on the nose, rhyming with the better Fields line about “single nights, in a double bed — alone.”
Even in her sixties, Fields seemed to be stretching herself, experimenting with form — and always adding that sunny side of life: “My chin is up/My hands are steady now/Come on, new dream, new life/I’m ready now,” the lyric to “I’m Way Ahead” goes. Here’s a youtube clip of Michele Lee singing it at the 1974 Tony Awards.
“Somethin’ Real Special” is the fourth PS Classics album by label co-founder Chaffin, and the first songwriter-centered recording by the tenor, following the discs “Where Do I Go From You?,” “Warm Spring Night” and “When the Wind Blows South” (he’s also heard on other studio-cast recordings from PS Classics). Chaffin and Krasker, who are married both personally and artistically, gathered about 300 songs, then picked the 17 for the disc. “I whittled the 300 down to 60,” Krasker told me, “then Philip whittled the 60 down to 17.” Together, they assembled an amazing array of arrangers and orchestrators, including Joseph Thalken, Matt Aument, Jonathan Tunick, David Loud, Jason Carr, John Baxindine, David Wolfson, Doug Besterman and Glen Daum. James Moore conducts.
Chaffin sounds rich, warm and varied. My favorite tracks at the moment are “I’ll Buy You a Star” (no longer that somewhat dreary Fields-Schwartz ballad from the cast album of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it now has a big-band swing, and that’s Tunick himself on clarinet); “You’re a Lovable Lunatic” (from Seesaw, gentle and plucky and full of innocence and sincerity, with no hint of the ’70s); Wolfson’s pizzicato take on “Sweet Charity”; the compelling Baxindine melding of Harold Arlen’s “Let Me Look at You” and Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” — he adores someone in a first impression, indulges in the love, and then seems to return to adoration from afar, suggesting an unconsummated, across-a-crowded-room encounter.
McHugh, with whom Fields launched her career in the ’20s, is embraced in “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Don’t Blame Me,” Exactly Like You,” “Then You Went and Changed Your Mind” (a song not tied to a show, and you gotta love Carr’s ukulele and jazz violin spin here, with additions of blues-jazz trombone and tuba) and “Diga Diga Doo” (from Blackbirds of 1928, trafficking in native and savage references, the song is currently heard in Broadway’s Cotton Club-era revue After Midnight).
Southerner Chaffin is right at home with the smooth, bluesy Arlen-Fields album title-track, from the 1953 movie “The Farmer Takes a Wife.”
Also on the disc: “Remind Me” (from the film “One Night in the Tropics,” with music by Kern), “Carousel in the Park” and “April Snow” (both from Up in Central Park, with music by Romberg), the unusual lark “A Cow and a Plow and a Frau” (from Arms and the Girl, with music by Morton Gould) and “Alone Too Long” (from By the Beautiful Sea, with music by Schwartz).
Here’s what Maury Yeston wrote in the “Somethin’ Real Special” liner notes:
Though I first had the pleasure of meeting Philip in 1993, it was a few years before I actually heard him sing — and absolutely well worth the wait! He and his partner Tommy Krasker, an old friend, had been living in Los Angeles and we’d meet for coffee or lunch a couple times a year whenever they’d fly to New York. But in the fall of 1996, while I was casting Titanic, Philip called to say he and Tommy were relocating to the East Coast, and he hoped to get a few New York auditions under his belt. Could he come in and sing for Titanic? Though there was no role for him at the time, we both knew the chance to audition in a Broadway house for a Broadway director, librettist and composer would be invaluable. Of course I said yes, and sent Philip the song we asked most of the men to learn: “We’ll Meet Tomorrow”. Philip flew himself in, put himself up, showed up, planted his feet, and debuted that extraordinary and unique baritone voice that has thrilled me ever since. When he was done, there was a stunned silence — broken by the voice of our director, Richard Jones, who turned to me and librettist Peter Stone and whispered, “We will never hear a better rendition of that song.” The strength and suppleness of Philip’s voice — his emotiveness combined with his purity of tone — just blew us all away. (Footnote: it is not surprising that, when he and Tommy finally moved to New York the following winter, Philip landed his first Broadway gig the week he arrived in town.)
Philip’s voice is deeply reminiscent of those classic and historic Alfred Drake voices, the kind that could blow the rafters off a Broadway house. Yet, imagine my surprise when he released his first CD three years later, eschewing theatre songs entirely to recreate the big-band sound of the ’30s and ’40s with a kind of easy crooning unheard since the golden days of the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras. In addition to Alfred Drake, he was also Dick Haymes! — or was he some combination of the two? It wasn’t until 2008, when he released “When the Wind Blows South,” that I began to figure Philip out. By then, he’d already released three solo discs, and sung on a half-dozen songbooks and compilations, but this new album was an evocation of the South, where Philip grew up, and his performances were more personal than ever — with his phrasings more relaxed and spontaneous. Then, when he performed a one-man show around that time, he talked about growing up in the Deep South: a shy country boy who loved to sing but had no outlet, so he’d take the tractor out into the hay field where no one could hear, and sing at the top of his lungs for the sheer pleasure of it. And then I finally understood – that was Philip, and that was what made him an original: he was part crooner, part lyric baritone, and partly still the same shy Southern boy vocalizing for his own enjoyment (this time sans tractor). The simple act of singing — of expressing a lyric — gave him such intense joy, a joy that was palpable.
On this new recording, Philip (or maybe all three of those Philips) turns his formidable talents to one of our greatest of Broadway lyricists, Dorothy Fields. It’s hard to convey the impact Fields had on songwriters of my generation. You couldn’t help but be impressed and inspired by her talent and tenacity. She was the one who made the leap from revue (Blackbirds of 1928, her first Broadway show) to star-driven musical comedy (Stars in Your Eyes, for Ethel Merman) to integrated musical play (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Arthur Schwartz) to the post-Rodgers & Hammerstein musical exemplified by her ’60s smash Sweet Charity. Supremely adaptable and wildly gifted, she made it all look easy. She could do triple rhymes and inner rhymes with the best of them, but she never strained for effect. Her lyrics were engaging and playful, and no one matched her ability to find the poetry in ordinary language. In short, her work is a treasure, and what Philip has recorded here is a treasury of our musical theatre literature.
Fields worked with dozens of collaborators during her half-century as a writer, and perhaps because she never formed a permanent partnership, her name never became as familiar as Hammerstein or Hart or Lerner. But singers and songwriters have been championing her work for nearly a century. Stephen Sondheim, who has long been one of her more vocal supporters, has described her work as “wry, graceful, urban, slightly rueful, earthy.” As he notes, her style was ideally suited to the more emotional composers, like Jerome Kern and Jimmy McHugh, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz — which is why this new album of
Philip’s contains some of the most beautiful songs ever written for the Great American Songbook. In addition, I find the unlikely pairings no less rewarding. The composers with whom she was unexpectedly (some might say oddly) paired never dragged her down; she energized them. She made Sigmund Romberg less maudlin, Morton Gould less lofty; she gave Cy Coleman’s brilliant jazz angularity a deep and abiding warmth. When he teamed with Fields on Sweet Charity, his already estimable music got bolder, and distinctively more affecting.
This pairing of Chaffin and Fields is made in heaven. If there’s an elegance, exuberance and effortlessness to Fields’ lyrics, the same could be said of Philip’s performing style here. Whether he’s being tender or playful or exultant, he makes the most of every line, handles even the most challenging melodic leaps with grace. And the choice of songs is inspired. Far from being an archival overview of Fields’ career, it is clear that these tunes are ones that most appealed to Philip, the ones that moved him the most, and his performances reflect that. How fitting it is that “country boy” Philip chose the little-known “Cow and a Plow and a Frau” and the unpublished “Somethin’ Real Special,” originally sung by the farmer in “The Farmer Takes a Wife.” Fields’ early years with McHugh also get their full due, not only the standards (including an exultant medley of “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Don’t Blame Me”), but we have here the very first recording of the flavorful “Then You Went and Changed Your Mind”:
You were smiling when I placed
Both my arms around your waist
And your eyes said “Welcome home, little stranger,”
Then you went and changed your mind.
Highlights and surprises come often: an exquisite pairing of “Let Me Look at You” (with Arlen) and “The Way You Look Tonight” (her Oscar-winner, with Kern); a soaring rendition of the title song from Sweet Charity; and perhaps most unexpectedly, two tracks from Fields’ forgotten Forties hit Up in Central Park. The first, the more familiar “April Snow,” is re-imagined here in a beautifully airy arrangement that sounds like orchestrator Jason Carr is channeling Marvin Hamlisch channeling Romberg; the second (new to me) is a lovely musical scene entitled “Carousel in the Park,” rich in imagery:
Nearby on a green bit of ground,
Nearby, with New York all around,
Nearby, comes the thin piping sound
Of a little carousel.
City pigeons and the sheep on the mall,
Sparrows in the midst of a brawl
Line up, like young men at a ball,
When the old man strikes the bell.
Lucky Romberg, to have had these words!
For me, though, the lyrics and performance come together especially wonderfully in “Alone Too Long,” a neglected gem from By the Beautiful Sea, in which the yearning in Fields’ lyric is beautifully captured in Philip’s expressive vocal.
I’d kiss you if I dared.
I want to, but I’m scared.
I should have known,
I’ve been Alone
Like Fields’ words, Philip’s performance is so plangent and deeply affecting — effortless and never calling attention to itself. I am so glad Philip phoned me that day long ago, because I was lucky to be there at the beginning. Few men have taken on the Fields catalog like this. The right man had to come along, and we are all so enriched by this perfect match of singer and songwriter.
— Maury Yeston, September 2013