Impossible Elegance

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Impossible Elegance

All I Need Is The Girl, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Music by Jule Styne, Sung by Paul Wallace (1959), encountered 1960?

I have no empirical data to back this up, but it’s intuitively obvious to me that listening to recorded music, that is recorded music deliberately selected by the listener, must have been more of a shared activity in the America of my youth.  There were no iPods then with user-programmed playlists to be enjoyed in solitude. About the only portable music, in fact, was the transistor radio and the car radio, and with both of those, you were at the mercy of the DJ when it came to selection.  Record players were not portable, and they tended to be situated in public areas within homes.  So if one person was listening to a record, there was an excellent chance that everyone else in the house would be hearing it too.  I can also remember parties my parents gave where people sat around and listened together to something on the record player, often comedy records.

Of course, in practice this tended to mean that kids had to listen to a lot of the music (and comedy) their parents liked.  Later on, this ingrained habit of sharing music communally went on with one’s peers, at least for a while.  I can vividly remember, for instance, sharing the fresh-out-of-the-envelope-with-the-shrink-wrap-just-slit Abbey Road album with my college roomies.  Four of us listened to the whole thing straight through, one of my housemates (later a humorist who wrote for the New Yorker) calling it with only slight comic exaggeration “a religious experience.”  Observing my kids’ musical consumption habits, I can only say that what I see today is far less communal – and less attentive.

Fortunately for me, my parents had some very interesting tastes.  (Also a few dull ones, but that’s a different story.)  One of the interesting things we had a lot of in the house were musicals.  I still have them all in their banged-up jackets and their scratched-up glory: Call Me Madam, Carousel, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, some kind of ersatz version of Guys and Dolls, Bells Are Ringing, The Boy Friend, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and on and on.  They’d get played a lot, and I’d hear them a lot, especially on game nights.

Lots of the time the evening’s entertainment in the house was cards or board games.  No one had yet invented the fancy electronic toys most of us – and I plead totally guilty to this – use to drive away the doldrums these days.  My house was even more pronounced in this, because we didn’t have a TV until I was a teen.  Even granting that almost everyone else did have a TV, I’d be willing to bet that board games and card games were what half of America would be doing on any given night.

Game nights were about the most fun I had, and I had lots of fun in my youth. Clue, multiple solitaire, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Flinch were the repertoire I remember.  My mom, my stepdad and I made a great threesome.  We gave each other no quarter and asked none.  A quote from my mom that is legend in our family dates back to one of those evenings.  After luck turned in her favor one night, she remarked: “I’m getting my old viciousness back.”  Here’s me on one of those evenings, playing Flinch, probably a year before the time I am about to speak of, when Gypsy arrived in the house, and a photo copped from E-Bay of a 1954 vintage Monopoly set, which looks identical so far as I can tell to the one we played on.

We’d often play records too, usually the musicals rather than the classical stuff, while the games were afoot.  Obviously, the focus was on the games, not the music, but we’d all have one ear cocked to it.  I’m sure I was the one listening the most carefully.  And I’d talk to my parents about the musicals, asking for explanations of the lyrics, trying to gauge how if at all they shared my emotional responses to the music.  I’m sure we talked a lot about Gypsy, which I’m guessing arrived as a present from one of my parents to the other in 1959, the year it was recorded.

Whether we specifically discussed it over games I don’t recall, but all I can tell you is that I have forever associated the music of Gypsy with the look and shape of those Monopoly pieces.  So I have to assume there was something to forge the connection in my head besides just the music playing in the background.

And there was a lot to talk about with Gypsy, often called the greatest musical of the mid-20th Century.  Briefly, it tells the parallel tales of Louise, a lonesome girl trying to grow up in the world of vaudeville, and of Rose,  a monstrous stage mother who has channeled all her aggressive aspirations into the mission of making Louise and her sister into stars.  Rose succeeds with Louise, in unexpected fashion, as Louise, after many false starts in the collapsing world of vaudeville, becomes the superstar stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970).  The dramatic arcs of mother and daughter sort of go in opposite directions, in a fashion reminiscent of A Star Is Born.

All well and good, but if you’re Catholic parents in mid-century Midwest America, what exactly do you say to your 10 year-old son about burlesque?  If you’re playing that record, you can’t really ignore the subject.  I think they took a just-the-facts-ma’am approach.  Which I think in retrospect was just right.  I was ready for the facts, but not what they might portend.  Nor was I ready to hear my folks’ own thoughts about the odd mixture of voyeurism and art that the burlesque of the historical Gypsy’s era had become.  I just wanted and needed to know what it was about.

I listen to gay friends who say they always knew they were gay; I always knew I was straight.  I had had crushes on girls from at least kindergarten, and they were getting stronger in the second half of grade school.  But they were just crushes; even though I knew “the facts of life” from about that point (and to my folks’ credit, I found out from them, not elsewhere), I did not fantasize about sex yet.  I could understand, as an abstract matter, the notion of men being interested in watching a woman undress, but that kind of interest was still in my own future.

So what I was responding to when I listened to that record, over and over again, was just what the music was meant to be about: the personalities of show business folk, and the tendency of their way of life to isolate the lonely and to amplify the personality disorders of the narcissistic – but also about the miraculous, partly healing but also partly wounding powers of showbiz razzamatazz.

And that is why, in a musical filled with numbers that became standards (Small World, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You, You’ll Never Get Away From Me) the one that most reminds me of that time in my life is a non-standard: All I Need Is the Girl.

I recommend that you look at one of the many decent videos of this number from various revivals featured on YouTube before reading further.  Here’s one that captures the music particularly well.

The setup is that late-teenaged Louise, isolated by her mother from almost all peer contact, is trying to build bridges with Tulsa, a personable young man who is part of her vaudeville troupe.  She asks him to demonstrate a nightclub song-and-dance act he is working up as part of his own effort to strike out for freedom and autonomy.  As he enthusiastically cooperates with the request, his routine evokes elegance and romance, and Louise responds by trying to become part of the act in more than one sense, dancing along but also wishing she could romance along as well.  But Tulsa is lost in his own world, dancing with an imaginary partner (“all in white!”), while Louise is stuck in part of a miserable animal costume from the vaudeville act her mother makes her do.  They do touch and he allows her to share the flourish at the end, but the momentary sharing is only about the showbiz of it, not the romance.  So the song, which sounds a bit as if Tulsa were seducing Louise, is really about Tulsa and Louise having their separate dreams side-by-side.  It works for him, but not for her.

Of course, I couldn’t hear all this on the record, and my parents had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take me to the actual show.  So what I heard was what I got.  And what I heard was something I couldn’t even express yet.  It’s all there in the music, though.

The story goes that Stephen Sondheim, the greatest double-threat composer and lyricist ever to hit Broadway, but still new to the game then, had been passed over to do the music, and given only the lyrics.  And hearing journeyman Jule Styne’s score, it’s impossible to believe that Sondheim could have bettered him, though later on Sondheim got his own shot at writing excellent ersatz vaudeville music in Follies.

In this song, Sondheim has two relatively simple jobs, both of which he discharges superbly.  The first is to give Tulsa an explanation for his embrace of elegance: “Once my clothes were shabby./ Tailors called me cabbie./ So I took a vow:/ Said this bum’ll be Beau Brummel.” And he goes on to describe the “Paris silk” and “Harris tweed” he has acquired.

And then comes Sondheim’s second job: explaining that, now that Tulsa’s persona is properly decked out, there’s a need for a girl to complete the picture.  In fact the clothes are dispensable, while the girl is not. “All I really need is the girl.”  That realization reached, the dance number takes over, in which, in Tulsa’s imagination, the girl in white appears for a romantic pas-de-deux involving both waltzing and tap.

Styne meanwhile has been weaving in a sophisticated, jazzy little melody that creeps upwards by half steps, then retreats in a flurry of dance patter, only to come surging back, again and again.  After the transition to the dream sequence with the girl in white, the melody returns in subtly different form, morphing from waltz to jazz, getting faster and more explosive as it reaches its climax – a word chosen advisedly.  For this music is nothing if not sexual.  And by that I don’t mean salacious; there’s a good deal of that in other numbers.  I mean sexual, evocative of the emotions and rhythms of sex itself.  But it’s all sublimated in the ritual of dance (the taps are audible on the recording).

At 10, I could hear this and respond to it.  Sex, I was hearing, was about sublime emotion, about the ability to do something incredibly difficult in conjunction with another person incredibly fast.  It was about feeling elated about oneself and one’s athleticism and one’s body.

Well, at 10 I knew I wasn’t ready for all that.  But I certainly filed it away for future reference.  Later on, in the wretched journal I kept in my later teens, I tried to write a sort of fantasia on the images that song had put in my head, transposed to a high school dance.  Fortunately or unfortunately, life was hurtling me toward a rock-n-roll world where dancing would mainly mean standing in place doing my own thing while a woman did hers.  And God hadn’t gifted me with nimble feet.  I was never going to be Tulsa.

But I never lost the picture, either, of the sort of impossible elegance that I might have associated with romance, if life had allowed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album art and photo of vintage Monopoly game

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