Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Morning Midway: Original Ringling Showtunes Deserve Retrospective Recognition ...

What's the best damn original song ever written for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey?

I would nominate, hands down, a Henry Sullivan-John Murray Anderson collaboration for the 1951 opus, "Popcorn and Lemonade." As orchestrated by Victor Young for the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. It shimmers in its glory, though nobody ever heard it that way under the big top.

You're already leaping to the defense of Young's great title song for the movie?

Ah ha, yes, I know, but that was not written for Ringling-Barnum; it was composed for De Mille's film.

Under the aegis of John Ringling North, hands down again, I'd argue the circus moved to the best original ditties composed for its various parades and production numbers.

The Sullivan-Anderson catalog (I've not heard it all, because not all of their work made it onto wire recordings), also gives us the equally glorious, "Picnic in the Park," and the 1951 spec rouser, "Sing a Happy Song."

And there's a remarkably intense number the two created that deserves special status, certainly in melody making: "Jungle Drums." It scored the darkly exotic 1950 finale elephant bash.

I was watching Mike Martin's Ringling-Barnum Vol 1 today, and there it was. You get teasing glimpses of what "Drums" looked and moved like, but you simply can not know what it was like to have sat in the audience when the whole thing unfolded start to finish before your eyes.

Composer North himself, prolifically ambitious, contributed some of the best Ringling show music, believe it or not, and Merle Evans, with his bent for big top fanfare, found ways to pump additional sentiment and excitement into the owner's tuneful melodies. The 1955 show contains North's best set by far, perhaps partly inspired by lyrics from a real Broadway pro, Irving Caesar, from the pulsing "Holidays" to the bouncy "Mamas' in the Park." Also, "Impossible" was tremendously effective in context when introduced during the Pinito Del Oro single trap thriller.

Outside of Victor Young's noteworthy treatments on the GSOE movie album, Big Show songs have never received effective professional studio treatment. Sadly, they likely never will.

A slate of North's tune's came out from RCA in the 1960s as Circus Brass. Only minimally pleasing. Some of his best tunes, like the lovely "Butterfly Lullaby" and the atmospheric "Minnehaha," are missing.

Harold Ronk issued a fine LP, A Day at the Circus With Mr. Singing Ringmaster, but most of the tunes are not drawn from original Ringling scoring. I'm surprised he didn't record Richard Barstow's zippy 1968 opener, "Take a Ride on a Bubble.

I've never heard Igor Stravinsky's "Circus Polka", written under a commission for North's "Ballet of the Elephants" in 1942. And, of course, is there a mortal alive who has ever heard any of the original music composed by the original Ringling brothers for their opera specs?

Nor had I mentioned a number of recent melodically savvy originals composed for the Felds version of the show. Some, upon first hearing, struck me as nearly Broadway worthy, like the recent "Zing Zang Zoom"

North's music composed for the indoor years fell fairly flat to my ears; finally, I realized what might have been missing: Merle Evans. The bandmaster at work then, Izzy Cervone, did not have it in him to fancy up and fanfare North's tunes into effective circus razzmatazz ... What Evans did with "Your birthday," the tag melodic closer to the '55 spec, still moves me as much as any Ringling original. Well, okay, Maestro Evans piles onto it a sky-high climax worthy of a march through the pearly Gates.

Please, somebody, make these songs a project!

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