Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, June 04, 2010

All You Need is Love

“Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” George S. Kaufman
A few years ago, the Beach Boys, or their remnants, were playing at a balloon festival in New Jersey. The balloons were preparing for their evening launch and the spectators were in the mood for some good, summertime music.

Who better to supply it than the Beach Boys? They were playing along and the crowd was really happy: Surfin’ Safari. Fun, Fun, Fun. I Get Around. Barbara Ann. Good stuff. But then they turned to their post-British Invasion numbers, the political stuff.

Suddenly, the crowd stopped clapping and singing along. They stopped dancing and they stopped applauding at the end of the numbers. Hearing only the dribblings of applause, the leader asked what was wrong. Someone ventured to tell them. I think it was me. I was certainly annoyed, but I can’t remember because other spectators quickly took up the call.

“Get back to the fun stuff!”

The lead singer balked and explained all about the Beach Boys’ political views, how they were about much more than fun in the sun. Maybe. But who cared? The audience was into the fun in the sun stuff. That’s what they wanted to hear. They didn’t buy the bait-and-switch – the “commercial” for communsim - and made their feelings known. Finally, the band relented and the sun came out again.

Too bad “Sir” Paul McCartney wasn’t there to learn that lesson about mixing music and politics. His own band was only popular when it played popular music. A whole palette of drugs and booze had to be shoved down the throats of music lovers to convince stoned audiences that the Beatles’ later, screaming serenades for lunatics were “popular”. By 1970, The Beatles folded.

They had legions of addicted fans (who thought I Am the Walrus held some sort of mysterious, mystical meaning) and piles of money. They were “successful” - phenomenally successful – and their breakup was voluntary. Nevertheless, they were also history.

Age hasn’t lent “Sir” Paul wisdom. He managed to go on mixing the two elements at the Gershwin Awards ceremony, bestowed upon him by the Library of Congress, at the White House this week. He didn’t have the sense to realize politics and music don’t mix. All he needed to do was sing about love. However, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Thank goodness for columnist Michelle Malkin and her readers who pointed out, in response to “Sir” Paul’s remarks about former President George Bush not knowing what a library is, that First Lady Laura Bush was a librarian. McCartney certainly did an excellent job of putting his foot in his famous mouth on that one. Let’s hear a round of applause for true stupidity.

Good to know there are people who know what homework is, unlike the woefully ignorant Sir Paul. He was in good company, entertaining a president who didn’t know where the automobile was invented (the first practical car with an internal combustion engine came from Germany; there was an even earlier, steam-powered model from France).

The White House probably felt it was fitting to serve as host when McCartney was awarded the Gershwin prize, established in 2007 to honor song-and-dance men. George Gershwin, while really just a musician, wrote the scores (his elder brother Ira wrote the lyrics) for some famously political Broadway musicals.

Gershwin was also famous early on for his piano rolls (I received a set for my birthday one year – love ‘em!) and his work in classical music (“Rhapsody in Blue”). But he was a prolific composer for Broadway, writing numerous tunes such as “I Got Rhythm.”

The Broadway show Strike Up the Band (1927) was a political satire that closed after one night during its pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia.  (Fortunately Strike Up the Band the tune survived the experience). Morrie Ryskind, the librettist, warned by its author George S. Kaufman that the story would fail, had to go back to the drawing board to make it work for audiences. He had to substitute romance for politics and chocolate for cheese.

Ryskind complained that he was being forced to substitute silliness for satire, the Three Stooges for War and Peace. However, the change worked.

Once it made it to Broadway in 1930, the show had a simply stellar pit band: the Red Nichols Orchestra, which included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden. If you know music: Whoa!  Now THAT'S a band!!

Originally, Kaufman’s book centered on a cheese tycoon who tries to convince the United States to declare war on Switzerland so he could corner the market on cheese. “The Man I Love”, now a Gershwin standard, was removed and the more romantic chocolate put in place of the cheese.

Strike Up the Band was followed up in 1931 by Of Thee I Sing. The history on this musical is a bit confusing (what can you do when you must depend on Wikipedia for facts) but apparently the original story pitted competing factions against one another in the quest to write a new national anthem.

Again, it didn’t work too well on the boards and the story was again changed to a rather ridiculous romance involving a beauty pageant in which the winner would marry the president of the United States.

The leading man candidate, who eventually wins, is running on the “Love” platform. He falls for the pageant organizer instead of the winner and marries her. When France expresses its outrage (don’t even ask why) and threatens war, the President uses a Constitutional amendment to turn his office over to his Vice President, who very gladly marries the beauty pageant winner.

In 1933, the sequel to this musical, Let ‘em Eat Cake, totally bombed. Although it had the same producer, writers, and stars, the tone was much darker and the issues were more complex. The president is defeated for reelection, and he and his vice president plot to overthrow the government.

The show carried a message that audiences did not want to hear – we’ll make you like us whether you like it or not - and it was a failure. You’d think the very title Ryskin chose would have been a clue as to what type of reception the musical would have.

Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Given Roosevelt’s blatant courting of the press (he used to take them on picnics), it’s hardly surprising that (harmless as it was) it won the Pulitzer. If the current trend towards “reinventing journalism” succeeds, we’ll probably see many more awards going to politically-favored artists like Paul McCartney.

Aspirants will have nothing to fear. If the audiences shut them down, the government will simply raise the curtain on them again. If The Beatles had been half as good as their hype, they wouldn’t have broken up. Some of their music was enjoyable. It just didn’t elevate them above the status of Gershwin, or Glenn Miller, or Grieg (a classical composer who wrote Peer Gynt Suite for Henrik Ibsen’s play about the adventures of a ne’er-do-well wanderer who tries to avoid responsibility).

When an entertainer, particularly one with a royal title before his name, starts dictating to you what sort of music you should like and who you should vote for instead of playing the music you paid good money to hear, it’s time to get out the shepherd’s crook and haul him off the stage.

This is not to cast aspersions on Gershwin’s music or legend or even the more enjoyable of the Beatles tunes – only a liner note to remind us that in a socialist government, you don’t need good acting, good writing, or good music to have a hit. Nor need you worry about critics, because they’ll be banned from panning your government-approved messages.

Nor do you need love to succeed, as those Gershwin musicals did. All You Need is Gov, love. Gov is all you need.


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