A Wicked Good Holiday Concert program notes

For nearly 100 years musical plays performed on Broadway and in Hollywood films have been enchanting theater-goers. The orchestra opens its “Wicked Good” holiday concert by saluting some of the most memorable productions belonging to a genre that critics have variously exalted as “one of America’s few original art forms” and “the greatest contribution the United States has made to the popular enjoyment of the human race.”

Broadway Showstoppers, arranged by Chuck Sayre, is a medley featuring songs from four outstanding plays. Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz wrote That’s Entertainment! for the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele with a book by George S. Kaufman. In addition to the title song, the show also featured the ever-popular “Dancing in the Dark.” In 1953 MGM adapted the production into a musical comedy film, also starring Fred Astaire, that was nominated for several Academy Awards. Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s book that inspired the 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret and the 1972 film, tackled a much darker theme, the Nazi rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. Set in 1931, it focuses on nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub and revolves around 19-year-old English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and her relations with the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Sayre’s medley includes the title song sung by Joel Grey, the club’s master of ceremonies in both productions. Mame is the title song of a 1966 Broadway show with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman that starred Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur. Set in New York and spanning the Great Depression and World War II, it focuses on eccentric bohemian Mame Dennis, whose famous motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” The production became a hit, spawning a 1974 film with Lucille Ball in the title role. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” came into existence as Irving Berlin’s show-stopping song in the 1946 Broadway production and the 1950 film version of Annie Get Your Gun, a fictionalized version of the life of Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter from Ohio, and her husband, Frank Butler. In 1954, 20th Century Fox recycled the song as the title of its musical film starring Ethel Merman.

La Cage aux Folles is a 1983 musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics and music by Jerry Herman. Based on the 1973 French play of the same name, it focuses on the farcical adventures of a gay couple, Georges and Albin. The original 1983 Broadway production won six Tony Awards and has been revived in 2004, 2008, and 2010. The songs featured in Philip J. Lang’s Selections from La Cage aux Folles include “La Cage Aux Folles,” “We Are What We Are,” “With You on My Arm” and “The Best of Times.”

The Library of Congress has named the The Wizard of Oz the most-watched motion picture in history no doubt due to annual telecasts of it every year since 1956. In 1939, MGM released this musical fantasy, which was based on the fairytale novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum. The film was notable for its use of special effects, Technicolor, unusual characters, and fine singing, but it clearly owes its longevity to the wonderful music written by Harold Arlen (1905-1986). Chuck Sayre’s The Wizard of Oz Medley for Orchestra includes “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Merry Old Land of Oz” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the latter voted the 20th century’s No. 1 song by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wicked, a musical by Stephen Schwartz based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the witches of the Land of Oz: Elphaba, the misunderstood girl with emerald-green skin, and Galinda, the beautiful, ambitious, and popular blonde. Although the production met with mixed critical reception, it has been a favorite among patrons. In October of this year, Wicked completed its 3,259th performance, making it the 14th longest-running Broadway show in history. The songs featured in Ted Ricketts’ arrangement, Highlights from Wicked, include: “No One Mourns the Wicked,” “The Wizard and I,” “Dancing Through Life,” “Popular,” and “Defying Gravity.”

Robert Wendel packed his A Hollywood Salute with songs from 18 different movie scores, all in three minutes! How many of them can you name?

By far the most popular and successful composer of film music has certainly been John Williams. Despite being highly regarded as a composer of concert and incidental music, Williams’ talent as a film composer has shined most brightly. He has written the scores and served as music director for over 80 films including such super-hits as Jaws, E.T., Schindler’s List, and the Indiana Jones series. His work has already won him five Academy Awards, 17 Grammys, and three Golden Globes. Not the least among Williams’ major contributions are his scores for the Star Wars trilogy. The orchestra plays for you today the “Main Title” from the Star Wars suite Williams created based on his original scores for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

Clifton J. Noble Jr.’s masterful arrangement of the solemn advent hymn, “O come, O Come, Emmanuel” will be balm to ears jaded by the improbable renditions of seasonal songs by popular celebrities that are pervasive in stores and malls around this time of year. It has been suggested that this hymn may have eighth century origins in Gregorian chant, but it also has been attributed to a fifteenth century French processional for Franciscan nuns. The title is a translation of the Latin text, “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” by John Mason Neal and Henry Sloane Coffin, and the text is based on the biblical prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 stating that God will give Israel a sign that will be called Immanuel (God with us).

That the celebration of Christmas is universal is reflected in the medley, Around the World at Christmastime, arranged by Bruce Chase, a musician and composer who also conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The selections include traditional carols from Germany (“O Tannenbaum”), Poland (“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”), England (“What Child is This?”), Sicily (“O Sanctissima”), Southern France (“Whence Comes This Rush of Wings”), as well as the African-American spiritual, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and with a nod to the Jewish holiday, “The Hanukkah Song.”

Musician, composer, and vocalist Mel Tormé and Bob Wells wrote The Christmas Song (commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) in 1944, supposedly during a blistering hot summer in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.” The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song early in 1946, and at Cole’s behest, a second recording was made the same year utilizing a small string section. That version became a massive hit. Although it has been re-recorded many times, Cole’s 196l version is generally regarded as definitive. According to BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), a music licensing company, it is the Christmas song most often performed.

Except for a few brief visits home, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) spent about 15 years in the West following the Russian revolution. Finally, impelled by homesickness, Communist party blandishments, and a long-frustrated need to reclaim his artistic roots, he established permanent residence in the USSR in 1936. One of the incentives for his return was a commission to provide a score for a movie Lieutenant Kijé. The broad satirical humor of its story appealed strongly to Prokofiev who wrote the music for the film and then adapted the score into a five-movement suite. It is one of his most popular works after Peter and the Wolf. On today’s program is the suite’s fourth movement, “Troika,” portraying a wild, post-nuptial snow ride with Kijé and his bride. Prokofiev really ramps up the excitement here with delightful orchestral color using strings, and percussion with sleigh bells, occasionally giving way to a trombone and cello bawling out a rakish Cossack song. The movement is frequently used in films and documentaries for Christmas scenes and scenes involving snow.

Our orchestra has probably played the music of Leroy Anderson (1908-75) more frequently than that of any other composer. Why? His light, engaging orchestral miniatures have become staples of pops concerts (among others) everywhere and they have also been enthusiastically welcomed at our own yearly pops programs, such as today’s. Anderson’s continuing broad appeal arises form his infectious melodies, his stimulating dance rhythms, and his many novel orchestral effects. The Christmas Festival and Sleigh Ride, being played today, date respectively from 1955 and 1948.

—Robert Simon and Jane Rausch

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