"Look on the bright side,” people say—when life isn’t necessarily going your way. This program will put a smile on situations that might require a stiff upper lip. We open with two songs from Broadway that express this theme explicitly—while their cheery dispositions belie bleak circumstances. The 1957 musical Gypsy was based on the memoirs of the burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee and centers on the character of Mama Rose, the ultimate aggressive stage mother, who pushes her two young daughters around the fading vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” became a signature tune for Ethel Merman, whose biographer Brian Kellow called it “a chilling illustration of blind ambition mixed with megalomania” that masquerades as a “big, brassy paean to the power of positive thinking.”
In the 2004 musical Monty Python’s Spamalot, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” serves as a simple cheer-up song for King Arthur. But the song has a more tragic, and hilarious, origin. In the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Brian of Nazareth is born on the original Christmas in the stable next to Jesus, and spends his life being mistaken for a messiah. Condemned to death by crucifixion, Brian and his fellow sufferers sing, whistle and “dance” this song from their respective crosses.
Consider “Java Jive” a coffee break where you can take the bright side literally. Milton Drake and Ben Oakland wrote songs for vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood, including this charming appreciation from 1940 of both coffee and playful language. First recorded by The King Sisters, it became a hit for The Ink Spots the following year, and returned to the spotlight with The Manhattan Transfer in 1975.
In Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s torch song “Stormy Weather,” the singer pines for her absent man (or his gal). Written in 1933, it was first sung at the Cotton Club in Harlem by Ethel Waters, who had just been through the breakup of her marriage. Waters recalled, “When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor, I was telling things I couldn’t frame in words. I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, of the misunderstandings in my life I couldn’t straighten out, the story of wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted.”
America’s enslaved Africans adopted the Christian religion of their masters and expressed their faith in songs that came to be known as spirituals. Some songs told stories from the Bible, while others served as a way to communicate with one another without knowledge of their masters. Like so many black spirituals, “Soon Ah Will Be Done” begins in darkness—“the trouble of the world”—and tries to imagine the light—“goin’ home to live with God.” Songs like this one helped keep slaves sane, as they would try to imagine a world with “no more weepin’ an’ a wailin’” from the hardship of their lives.
“Shenandoah” is a traditional American folk song that probably began life in the early 1800s as a river boatman’s shanty, or work song, attributed to the fur traders who traveled the Missouri River. It later traveled downriver to become a shanty for seafaring sailors. Its meaning is uncertain, since its many sets of lyrics may refer to the Shenandoah River or Valley in Virginia and West Virginia, or to the Iroquois chief Shenandoah and the love of his daughter.
In Robert Burns’ 1793 poem “O whistle and I’ll come to ye,” a young lass invites a lad to pay her amorous attentions, but discretely, lest her “father and mother and all should go mad.” The appropriately playful tune is traditional Scottish, and the arrangement by Mack Wilberg reflects the flirtatious text with stop-and-start gestures in both voices and piano four-hands, and with a typical short-long rhythm called the “Scotch snap.”
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” asks Freddie Mercury at the start of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and at the end, we ask ourselves, “What was that all about?” Many have tried to interpret this song—as the story of a murderer who sells his soul to the devil, as Mercury’s coming out story, and more. It may be best to take Mercury’s own advice and let listeners “make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”
On the surface, Kirby Shaw seems to take a less faithful approach in his gospel interpretation of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water”—yet, Simon was inspired by the black gospel singer Claude Jeter, who wrote, “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name” in his 1958 song “Mary Don’t You Weep” for The Swan Silvertones. Simon reinforced the song’s gospel roots with traditional chord changes, and by setting the accompaniment for solo piano, rather than guitar. Simon typically took a long time to write lyrics, but he said “Bridge” came to him “all of a sudden. It was one of the most shocking moments of my songwriting career.”