Saturday, August 21, 2010

If You Don't Want to Close Your Eyes and Listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" After This, You're Insane

"It's delightful, it's delicious, it's delovely..."
-Cole Porter

You don't have to know me all that well to know of my love of musical theater. I mean, let's get serious--seeing Wicked twelve times makes me a little bit of a nut, but a happy nut. If you know me even better than that, you know that I love to become engrossed in something until I find another thing to obsess over. Combine these two things, and you pretty much have me in a nutshell. A few weeks ago, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was on television, and of course, I had to watch it. Watching that led me to revisit my Rodgers and Hammerstein music, movies, and general knowledge, but also left me wishing for more, so I went to my library's online catalog in hopes of discovering a biography or some other non-fiction book about this pair who basically ruled my childhood. By chance, in some serendipitous twist (which is why I love libraries) I happened across a book called The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty by Wilfrid Sheed, which I immediately requested and subsequently sprinted to the library to get when it arrived. This seemed like just the book I was looking for--in weeks prior, I'd been re-reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events while I was taking summer classes (they're easy to set down and pick up when you have little time for fun reading) and was looking for a non-fiction fix. (Fiction is my first love, of course, but the librarian and general hoarder of useless, fun knowledge in me calls for a little non-fiction too.)

Well, The House That George Built certainly fit the bill. It is a fun, astonishing, and often distraction-laden (in a good way) read. This book claims to be a "history of the Golden Age of American popular music" and, to my mind, fulfills its goals. Sheed seems to be the perfect guy for the job too--he has met many of the composers and lyricists who he talks about in great detail, adding personal reflections along the way. He starts out the book at the beginning of the beginning of "American" music with Irving Berlin (who never learned how to play the piano properly, but has written some of the most important and memorable songs in American history) and moves to George Gershwin, who established American music and acted as a kind of "Chairman of the Board" (sorry, Frank) by setting up composers with lyricists and generally helping out his contemporaries while always seeming to best them. Sheed moves on to talk about Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow"), Duke Ellington ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore"), Cole Porter (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate), Richard Rodgers (duh!), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and many others and of all of their continuation of the legacy of Gershwin. Sheed reminds you of songs that you love, of which you probably never thought "Wow, who wrote that?!" He does a great job of giving character to each composer and lyricist, linking them with those songs that they're famous (or not so famous) for, and he doesn't hide their flaws, but shows how those flaws are part of the greatness of what they produced.

Almost every other page found me throwing the book down, running to my laptop and typing in names in my iTunes or searching for songs on youtube--it was too much fun, and now I've spent too much money downloading things to beef up my own collection. It's all made me want to simply lie on the floor with my eyes closed and listen to these wonderful songs like I used to when I would discover a new show or song when I was a girl.

But I think the best thing abouot The House That Gershwin Built is in the fact that it doesn't read like a history book, even thought that's really what it is. Sheed even gives us a caveat: "Anyway, this book is no technical study. A life of Keats or Robert Frost doesn't depend on metrics. This is also a book about a time and place, America 1900-1950, in between the horse and buggy and the jet plane, and the men who wrote music that would still sound good on "Jupiter and Mars," and wherever we decide to fly next." And he's not lying. Through the eyes and ears of these composers, Sheed is able to give us a glimpse of what life was like between 1900-1950 in America. Of course, this view isn't comprehensive, but the overview is wonderful. In a time when we take advantage of the fact that we have so many things at the snap of our fingers (or really, the touch of a screen), it's lovely to read about a time when you had to learn to play the piano so you could read the sheet music to play the new songs you loved and how important that music was to the general feeling of life. Not only this, but it's also thought-provoking to realize that those people in the 1920s were not so different from us--they craved entertainment (both quality and escapist) and these composers gave it to them through melody and witty lyrics, while also using that entertainment to change the way their audiences listened. Unfortunately, our idea of entertainment has strayed far away from quality (see: Jersey Shore, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Eminem, etc.), but we still have this wonderful "old" treasure-trove of songs that will hopefully never die. And, if you think about it, the best soundtracks for movies or bride and groom first dances at weddings or songs you close your eyes to are standards, right? And Broadway always loves a good revival (see: South Pacific in 2008, or Come Fly With Me which is all Frank Sinatra music (who sang so many of the songs Sheed talks about) and is done a la Movin' Out). I mean, who doesn't know "I Got Rhythm" by the Gershwins, or "The Lady is a Tramp" by Rodgers and Hart, or "You're the Top" by Cole Porter? Well, I won't say "shame on you" if you don't, but I certainly will pity you and beg you to read The House That Gershwin Built. Sheed's jazzy, personal, and engrossing writing and stories make you feel like you're on the inside of a wonderful inside joke (and it made me wish I played the piano).

I hope that I haven't made it sound like you need to possess my own level of fanaticism about this era and its music in order to enjoy this book, because I don't think that you do. Like I said before, this isn't a book just about the music, but about the life and times of the era that produced some of the greatest American music ever written, and it gives a great background to beginning or furthering a love of all kinds of music. However, if you're like me and know every word to every Rodgers and Hammerstein shows (even the one you might not like so much coughCarouselcough) and smile when you hear "De-Lovely" or wish you could write words like "The way you wear your hat/the way you sip your tea/the memory of all that/no, no they can't take that away from me," then this is most certainly the book for you. If you are looking for a non-fiction fix that won't feel like required reading, pick up The House That Gershwin Built.

Keep reading (and singing!)

PS--Another fabulous non-fiction of a different ilk is The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (which you may recognize as being the book that the movie Adaptation was VERY loosely based on). It's a really insightful, fun look into the lives of "orchid people" and especially John Laroche--a dirty, scummy, alarming, passionate, and real man who you can't help but love. I love Orlean (and read her blog at The New Yorker every day) and really enjoyed The Orchid Thief!

PPS--I've made it an end-of-summer goal to put all of my handwritten lists of books I've read (can you believe I've been making those lists for 10 years now!?) in an Excel spreadsheet... and I'm hoping to blog about that experience, because it's been great fun!