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Review: Hugh Martin, “Hidden Treasures: Songs for Stage and Screen 1941-2010”

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Did a cork pop?  Did the world stop?  Am I just in love…with the music and lyrics of Hugh Martin?  Even if you don’t know the name of the late Mr. Martin, you certainly know his songs: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Trolley Song,” and a little song heard every season, year after year, by the name of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  But these songs from the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis are just the tip of the iceberg of Hugh Martin’s catalogue, a few highlights of a career that lasted more than 75 years.  Martin died in 2011 at the age of 96, but Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project have brought together nearly 30 examples of Martin’s sparkling wit and lyricism in the grandly enjoyable Hidden Treasures (Harbinger HCD 2702).  For those who are already fans of Martin, it’s a must-have.  For those who only know his most famous contributions to The Great American Songbook, well…it’s an education!

You know an album is a bound to be a special one when no less an eminence grise than Stephen Sondheim is enlisted to write the foreword (to a generous 84-page, black-and-white illustrated booklet).  In his two volumes of collected lyrics, Sondheim proved himself to be not only his own toughest audience, but a frank critic of the works of many others from Ira Gershwin to Noel Coward.  But his praise for Hugh Martin is effusive: “Hugh Martin’s music, lyrics and vocal arrangements are the quintessence of 1940s musical comedy; they define what is meant by ‘show tunes’ or ‘pizzazz.’”  And there’s plenty of pizzazz on hand in every one of these thirty well-selected tracks spanning the period between 1941 and 2010, drawing on the composer-lyricist’s works in the Golden Ages of both Broadway and Hollywood.

Most of the tracks are heard in demo form, performed by Martin or his credited partner, Ralph Blane.  (Martin revealed in the last years of his life that he and Blane, more often than not, wrote separately, but took joint credit.  Think of them, then, as the musical theatre’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney.)  But there are also outtakes from Michael Feinstein’s 1995 Hugh Martin Songbook, live performances, a radio aircheck and even a newly-recorded song.  In the interest of making this album a definitive account of Martin’s career, the notes even helpfully indicate other recordings of the songs as well as their source projects.

Hit the jump for more of Martin!

Martin’s own voice, like that of so many composers, wasn’t a technical marvel.  But as a songwriter accustomed to presenting his material for prospective producers on both coasts, Martin compensated with an abundance of both feeling and charm.  You’ll soon recognize distinctive tone a few tracks into this set, and you’ll also find that he was quite a nifty pianist!  Insouciance and wit prevail in his songs and performances; the original demo of “Gotta Dance” from 1948’s Broadway musical Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! overflows with youthful enthusiasm.  But Martin is equally touching on “I Happen to Love You,” a lovely and harmonically surprising ballad from the 1958 original television production Hans Brinker, as re-recorded by its composer for the Feinstein project.

Living up to its title, roughly half of the songs on Hidden Treasures were written for productions that never made it to completion.  (More successful ventures like Best Foot Forward and High Spirits are represented, but there’s nothing from Meet Me in St. Louis!)  These show off the composer’s versatility and dexterous wordplay.  Four songs, sung by Ralph Blane and Timothy Gray, come from Tattered Tom, an unproduced show based on a Horatio Alger novel that almost starred Debbie Reynolds in 1968. “Who is Sylvia?” is the title song to a Doris Day film that never materialized; Doris would have portrayed the titular character, sung about by Kay Thompson (!), and Thompson’s nightclub cohorts the Williams Brothers (including Andy!) would also have starred.  When Doris Day pulled out, Who is Sylvia? was left unanswered.

Best of all the might-have-been projects could be Here Come the Dreamers, an original musical penned in 1961 with fiendishly clever lyricist Marshall Barer (Once Upon a Mattress). One song from its score, “On Such a Night as This,” performed by Barer and Corinna Manetto, even doffs its hat to Martin’s own Meet Me in St. Louis.  John Davidson, at 20 years old, is heard with Manetto on the infectious and jazzy “Did I Just Fall in Love?” and indeed, all of these songs demonstrate Martin’s musical adaptability.

There are also plenty of goodies from the projects which reached fruition.  The album’s opening cut, “The Three Bs,” originated in Martin and Blane’s first Broadway musical Best Foot Forward, and is performed in a radio aircheck by Martin’s quartet, The Martins.   The song is one example of Martin’s tight-harmony vocal arranging style that piqued the great Richard Rodgers’ interest in the young composer.  Rodgers enlisted Martin to supply the vocal arrangements for his The Boys From Syracuse, Too Many Girls and Pal Joey before the esteemed older man recommended Martin and Blane for the Best Foot Forward job.

1964’s High Spirits was the musical adaptation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, co-written by Martin (“moonlighting” from his association with Blane) and Timothy Gray, and their work remarkably captured the essence of The Master without ever aping his arch style.  Best of the songs sampled here is the delicious and zany “Manifestation,” cut from the score.  Imagine Beatrice Lillie, as dotty medium Madame Arcati, delivering saucy lyrics like these:  “I’ve had ghouls who were absolute fools/I’ve had witches who were absolute…holy terrors/I’ve had werewolves that (I must say) were wolves/I’ve had zombies with a fatal fascination/I’ve had every kind of haunt that a medium might want/But I’ve never had a manifestation!”

The extensive liner notes (including a track-by-track guide) penned for Hidden Treasures offer many fascinating tidbits, including the story of Tony Bennett’s audition for Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! and a none-too-flattering tale about Vic Damone, star of Martin and Blane’s film musical Athena.  Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me) contributes a lengthy essay of lyrical analysis and recollects the generous Martin offering him a chance to collaborate on a nightclub lyric for the notorious crooner Eddie Fisher (or Mr. Debbie Reynolds or Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.)  That song, of course, is included here.  Other contributors to the booklet include Michael Feinstein, Mark Eden Horowitz, Ted Chapin, Terry O’Donnell and album producers Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman.  Their notes are erudite, for sure, but also incredibly entertaining.

Hidden Treasures is an extraordinary collection of tuneful chestnuts that deserve a greater airing.  It’s indicated that Martin left behind enough material to compile a Volume Two; we can only implore you to take a chance on Volume One so that Messrs. Bloom and Rudman may begin that work now!

Written by Joe Marchese

January 19, 2012 at 10:17

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