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STORMY, WITH A CHANCE OF RAINBOWS: QHP devotes program to American master with unique Kansas tie

Mention composer Harold Arlen’s name to music lovers and they’re likely to say, “Oh yeah, he was one of those old Broadway guys, right?” But then drop into the conversation such titles such as “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather” or “Get Happy” and watch faces light up. “Oh, that Harold Arlen.”

To help showcase this composer’s centrality to American musical culture, starting January 19th Quality Hill Playhouse and Producing Artistic Director J. Kent Barnhart present That Old Black Magic: Harold Arlen Brings in the Blues, a program devoted to the music of this Buffalo, New York, native. Because, after all, shouldn’t Kansas Citians (of all people) want to know as much as possible about the composer of The Wizard of Oz?

The son of a cantor, this brilliant singer-pianist-songwriter had formed his own band by age 15 and shortly afterward was cutting his musical teeth in Harlem’s Cotton Club. He went on to score big on Broadway and (especially) in Hollywood. Though best known as the composer of “Over the Rainbow,” which the American Film Institute named the Greatest Movie Song of All Time, Harold’s vast catalogue of more than 400 songs is wide-ranging and rich in variety.

It is distinguished by one prevailing trait, which sometimes takes Harold into almost operatic territory: long, leisurely, arching melodies that just seem to go on and on. Though he is often grouped with other great songwriters of the first half of the 20th century (Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin), his melodies tend to be less square, more free-wheeling, definitely “outside the Tin Pan Alley box.”

So much so that even his contemporaries complained that the tunes were weird and unwieldy. “But you have to look at who was complaining,” said Kent, who is currently in his 23rd season at the 150-seat QHP and is ushering in the final stage of the theater’s ambitious build-out at the corner of 10th and Central (which now includes a spacious reception area that is soon to become a restaurant of some sort). “Music publishers wanted four pages: Cover, two pages of music, and advertising on the back. Thirty-two bars fit onto two pages.”

Tin Pan Alley was, in essence, a publishing industry, and songwriters of the ’30s and ’40s hawked songs that fit neatly into a model that composers such as Harold Arlen found straightjacketing. (It was partly for this reason that Irving Berlin formed his own publishing company, in fact, to carve out a bit of artistic freedom.)

It was only when Harold was able to experiment at live clubs and, later, for the movies that “he wasn’t bound by the song itself,” Kent said, “but had a freedom, a responsibility to the show itself.” In Hollywood, nobody cared if a song fit into 32 bars, as long as you could dance or romance to it.

“I don’t think I’m trying to be different,” Harold told biographer Edward Jablonski. “Sometimes I get into trouble; in order to get out of trouble I break the form: I start twisting and turning, get into another key or go 16 extra bars in order to resolve the song. And often as not, I’m happier with the extension than I would have been trying to keep the song in regular form.”

Harold’s experience working with African-American musicians from his teenaged years onward allowed him a certain entrée that others didn’t have. “Berlin and Gershwin … took black artists’ rhythms and harmonies and incorporated them into their songs,” Kent said. “They were a novelty. … But then came Harold Arlen, who worked at the Cotton Club with Cab Calloway. He collaborated with African-American musicians, rather than observing them and taking from them.”

Harold’s songs, as a result, were less “appropriation” than they were a sort of organic amalgam of styles, and infused with a deep understanding of what was essentially the birth of at least one tributary of the Blues. “There’s a certain pain in his music,” Kent said, “a certain soul.”

Harold was a bit of a disappointment to his parents initially: Nobody ever really wants their kid to go into music. Worse, he was born of twins (weighing less than 4 pounds), and when his normal-weight brother died shortly after childbirth his parents switched names and gave him his brother’s name.

“How creepy was that?” Kent said. “You’re the dead kid!” Instead of attending college as per parental wishes, he attended a trade school just to appease, but already in his middle teens he was sneaking out at night to play piano in night clubs—well into the wee hours. He was an imperious type even then, Kent said: When he formed The Buffalonians “he was only 20 and he was already the boss.”

Harold’s initial ambitions were humble: He wanted to sing and play piano. He didn’t even want to be a songwriter, but he found that when he casually tossed off a tune, people melted. In 1933, he and lyricist Ted Koehler famously came up with “Stormy Weather” in half an hour. “He honestly believed that these songs were given to him,” wrote biographer Walter Rimler. “It was his job, once the main idea came, to work hard on them, to make them as good as he could. But the initial idea, he believed, came from some other place.”

Kent said it’s not unusual for songwriters to feel they are a “vessel,” whether a result of divine power or not. “Because when a song comes to you in a half an hour, how else can you explain it? … You didn’t create it in that amount of time. It appears in your head and you write it down.”

QHP’s theme for 2017-2018 is What Makes a Song a Standard? and Harold Arlen takes a unique and interesting place in this cosmos, Kent said. He was “not like Rodgers & Hammerstein, who have a canon of works that are repeated over and over.”

Harold’s legacy, instead, was more varied, less show-bizzy, more earth-bound. “He worked in clubs, he worked in Hollywood, he worked on Broadway. And what remains is this group of songs that adds something to the Songbook that wasn’t there before.”

By Paul Horsley

That Old Black Magic runs from January 19th through February 18th. It features vocalists Lauren Braton, Christina Burton and LeShea Wright. Matt Baldwin plays clarinet and sax and Ken Remmert plays drums. Kent sings and leads from the piano. For tickets call 816-421-1700 or go to qualityhillplayhouse.com

Photos of Lauren and LeShea by Larry Levenson. Photos of Christina Burton and Matt Baldwin courtesy of Quality Hill Playhouse. Bottom photo, showing Kent in front of QHP’s lavish new dining area at 10th and Central, by the author. 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.comor find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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