Old Musicals Like New

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Johnny Mercer, Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 informs us, was "the lyricist for more popular songs than any other songwriter in history." In the mid-'40s, Mercer, a founder of Capitol Records, also had three No. 1 hits as a vocalist: "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Candy" and "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" — a record, I believe, for a classic pop songwriter. The Savannah native with the gap-toothed smile was the author or co-author of more than 1,000 songs, which scaled the charts for 30 years, in the prime of the Great American Songbook. His songs lasted well into the Age of Rock, with '60s hits in revival (Bobby Darin's rockin' "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," Frank Ifield's yodelin' "I Remember You") and original versions ("Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses," both Oscar winners).

The genesis of another late Mercer hit shows the songwriter's generosity. In 1958 he received, on two pages torn from a desk calendar, a scrawled suggestion from a Youngstown, Ohio, housewife, Sadie Vimmerstedt. "I want you to write a song for me," she wrote. "Based on I want to to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.' I know you could add a little story to the title and please me." Not only did Mercer add a little — no, a lot ("And that's when I'll discover that revenge is sweet, / When I sit there applauding from a front row seat, / When somebody breaks your heart / Like you broke mine") — he assigned Mrs. Vimmerstedt co-authorship and 50% of the royalties. Sadie was pleased. So was Tony Bennett, when he made a hit of "I Wanna Be Around."

Mercer's gift was for insinuating slang and Southern patois into his songs; his writing voice, like his vocal style, was that of a hip yokel. The songs performed at the Y by a quartet of soloists (Christine Ebersole, Jason Graae, Lewis Cleale and Amber Edwards) and, at the end, host Charles Osgood, displayed Mercer's ability to be sho'-nuff without showing off. "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" gets rhymes out of "mountains I clum oceans I swum." Another Oscar winner, "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," swings easy with "In the shank of the night, / When the doin's are right, / You can tell 'em I'll be there." Graae made an evening-long shtick of interrupting Osgood to sing yet more stanzas of "Spring, Spring, Spring," a Mercer-Gene DePaul number from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" that shows the lyricist at his most puckish. Consider these couplets that lead up to the title in five verses: "Ma Nature's lyrical / With her yearly miracle Each nest is twittering, / They're all baby-sittering ... Sun's getting' shinery / To spotlight the finery ... Even the catamount / Is nonplussed at that amount ... This home my momma's, I'll / Soon have my own domicile ..."

When romance was called for, Mercer was there too. "How Little We Know," for which Hoagy Carmichael provided the plangent melody, boasts a lovely sense of ignorance toward a potential affair: "Who knows why an April breeze never remains? / Why the stars in the trees hide when it rains? / Love comes along casting a spell, / Will it sing you a song, / Will it say a farewell? / Who can tell?" And at times, Mercer could twist a song's kicker. "Tangerine," written with Victor Schertzinger for The Fleet's In, sounds for most of its length like a standard number about an elusive goddess. The codas: "Yes, she has them all on the run, / But her heart belongs to just one. / Her heart belongs to Tangerine." It's a love song to an egotist.

The Y show, assembled by that preeminent scholar of Broadway music, Robert Kimball, had some nice arcana, like Mercer's rejected lyric for a Harold Arlen tune that, thanks to Ira Gershwin, became "The Man That Got Away." And at the end, one of Mercer's most important interpreters came on stage: Margaret Whiting, still a pistol at 81. The night I attended, she went dry on some lyrics to "One for My Baby," then won the audience back by muttering, in her best saloon-chanteuse alto, "Of all the songs to blow, it had to be this one!"

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