[Read online at: http://www.classical.net/music/books/reviews/1402758898a.php]
Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir
New York: Sterling Publishing. 2008.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Brrroad-way!
A typical Broadway memoir of an atypical Broadway career, Put on a Happy
Face tells of the rise of Charles Strouse, best known for Bye Bye Birdie
and Annie. Because my parents loved me, they took me to a performance
of the original production of Birdie, so I got to see Dick Van Dyke,
Chita Rivera, and a man who became an instant hero, Paul Lynde, purveyor
of wickedly funny comic timing before Bewitched sugared him up for TV.
At 12, I considered myself a connoisseur of musicals. The opening number,
a brilliant contrapuntal swirl of white rock 'n' roll cliches called
"The Bell Telephone Hour," announced an evening above the usual.
It turns out that, after a moderately traumatic childhood (read all about
it), Strouse studied composition at Eastman and with Aaron Copland, David
Diamond, Arthur Berger, and Nadia Boulanger. He left to make his mark
in New York and fortunately had the brains to realize it wasn't going
to be through his concert music. He knocked about doing everything -
audition accompanist for singers and dancers, pop pianist in seedy clubs
and strip joints, rehearsal pianist, and, finally, writing for off-Broadway
reviews, notably for the legendary eccentric producer Ben Bagley. Beyond
the stories, Strouse's capacity for hard work impresses me the most, as
does his list of neuroses. In fact, the neuroses seem to have fed the
work. For the longest time, he thought of himself as an unattractive
fat kid with bags under his eyes and a sex drive (to hear him tell it,
mainly frustrated) that claimed most of his attention not given to music.
Charles fervently pursued girls with a fairly low rate of success. At
one point, he asked for dating advice from his homosexual classical-music
buddies. Finally, he meets a beautiful woman (I've seen the photographs)
who not only can put up with him, but loves him.
You'd think he could relax, but he's still driven, at least as far as
music is concerned. He doesn't speak much of his classical work, probably
so as not to bore the reader. It turns out I've heard two such pieces,
and they're knockouts (recorded on Bay Cities BCD1038). Whether he still
writes these things, I have no idea. But he certainly, in the lulls
between shows, found lots of other work, notably as music director for
an ad agency. After a certain point, he didn't even need the money. So
what makes Charlie run? He feels compelled to compose, even though this
shuts him off from family and friends. At one point, he realizes that
if he didn't think about putting notes on paper, he'd be "lonely."
Clearly, his neuroses won't leave him any time soon.
Although it's no literary masterpiece, I enjoyed the book and Strouse's
stories. I savored the tasty vignettes about Gower Champion, Lauren
Bacall, Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, David Merrick, Sammy Davis, Jr.,
William Flanagan, and Edward Albee. Strouse is an endearing, funny guy,
resilient against backstage back-stabbings, and a moderately-sharp
observer. I also happen to be a fan, although I truly disliked "Tomorrow"
and Annie, perhaps his biggest hit. I treasured my original cast albums
of Golden Boy, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman, and
Applause (before Katrina destroyed them), and hope Marty will finally
make it to Broadway or at least to the recording studio.
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