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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Order of Songs

Personal Narrative Dept.: With Feb. 14 looming disturbingly close, my cabaret-show partners got together with me today to run through material and figure out what material should work and who’s singing what and how might we court the unexpected without getting too weird.

While I don’t want to give away all of the surprises we’re planning, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into the rehearsal room. We’ve e-mailed; we’ve talked by phone. We have favorites from previous performances, but, with a performance on Valentine’s Day, we’re pursuing some of the odder corners of the love song tradition.

Malcolm Kogut, Amy Prothro, and
Byron Nilsson. Photo by Lily Whiteman
We’ll be at Saratoga’s Caffè Lena, a coffeehouse that’s been presenting an eclectic blend of folk and other acoustic music – and theater – since 1960. It’s an intimate house with an audience that meets you more than halfway, so we want to challenge them with material they would be hard-pressed to hear from anyone else.

So Amy Prothro and Malcolm Kogut and I hit the rehearsal room with piles of sheet music and a vague idea of how to order what feels like an excess of material, but it was easy to settle on an opening number. Amy just returned from a five-week stint in Michigan performing in an Irving Berlin revue, so we plucked “You’re Just in Love” from the show “Call Me Madam,” which features two contrasting parts (for two contrasting singers), bringing the two parts together at the finish.

Right away we decided to swap parts. The slower opening section was written for Russell Nype (Donald O’Connor in the movie), with a rousing counterpoint for Ethel Merman. My vocal braying is far more Mermanesque than Nypeish, so we run it with Amy singing the opening, and she strikes the right note of plaintive tenderness. Plus, you really have to hit those notes on the button; the Merman part has more leeway, for which I’m grateful. The duet portion kicks the song into such high energy that it seems to end too soon; the show’s sheet music indicates an encore of the counterpoint section, for which we decide to swap back the parts, reprising a few bars at the end for a tag that lets the audience know it’s truly ended.

It makes sense to go from there to a song about the ill-fated love between a honeysuckle and a bindweed, but we performed it recently enough to save it for another rehearsal. Amy has brought a couple of country-flavored songs to the mix; one of them, Roger Miller’s “You Oughta Be Here with Me,” has a poignancy that contrasts nicely with the wise-guy stuff that probably will flank it. Plus, there’s a violin obbligato, so I am exhorted to pull my fiddle out of the closet and see if I can hack it. It would be a nice effect; it would be a huge surprise.

What we don’t want is a conventional array of love songs. That means we’re able to dip into the well of material by Noël Coward and Tom Lehrer that I enjoy. But Amy has persuaded me to open the second set not with a nasty Stephen Sondheim number, but with a three-song medley of standards (bumping Sondheim to the second-song slot).

She suggested Rodgers & Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love,” from the show “The Boys from Syracuse,” and with a verse that gives no clue as to the eventual refrain. Another good surprise, and a nice aha! moment for the audience when the refrain kicks in. We’ll segue that into Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” with me taking the solo, although I’m exhorting Malcolm to dig up Dizzy Gillespie’s “Hot House,” which was based on the Porter song, and which would make great accompaniment. And then “If This Isn’t Love,” from “Finian’s Rainbow” – but my sheet music is from the show’s full score and includes chorus, dance music, and high-context lyrics. I need to find a songbook version that’s been rendered more generic.

For four hours we try out and take apart and re-harmonize and otherwise figure out how to make the songs sound best in our voices, and how to construct an effective dramatic arc through the two sets. It’s easy to figure out how to open and close a set – it’s those middle numbers that need to be ordered just right.

You’ll see the result at 8 PM Friday, Feb. 14 at Caffè Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). Bring a date. Buy your tickets here. We can promise that Valentine’s Day will never seem the same.

1 comment:

fiddler said...

I love this picture of you.