Three Reasons to Love New York — Part II

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It’s one of the more depressing truisms of the day: Young people hate old songs. They don’t get the smoothness, the optimism, the careful rhyming. Precision of lyric and emotion is so uncool it’s almost Republican. (Worse then Republican: most of them would rather listen to Cheney than to Cole Porter.) For them, the Great American Song Book might as well be in Esperanto — a language not worth knowing. Kids don’t think of a standard by Gershwin or Kern or Rodgers as a failed version of a new song. It just isn’t music to them.

I pause, in my fogeyish what’s-the-matter-with-kids-today rant, to wonder why they should be any more tolerant of the music I loved than I am of the music they love. Then I put aside doubt and snarl: because mine’s better! And if I remind myself that songs of the 60s are as distant from today’s kids as songs of the teens and 20s were to me... well, I have an answer for that, too. I liked those old songs! It’s simple courtesy for them to give a tolerant listen to the music of my youth. They might even learn to like it.

I’m tempted to skip today’s teenagers and go for the toddlers: Generation Z. They’ve been raised on “Sesame Street” songs — the pre-school equivalent of Broadway melodies, with some of the same wit and lilt. Maybe the very young can be brainwashed, make that enlightened, to appreciate the songs that lifted the world’s spirits for 50, 60 years.


My niece Beth turned 42 this week. (Note to readers making quick calculations about my age: my brother is muuuuuuch older than I.) She’s the oldest of four girls who, though born too late to have heard the material firsthand, somehow knew most of the songs of that miracle year, 1957, by the time they were in grammar school. At family gatherings the girls would render old songs in a saucy fashion, occasionally accompanied on the tenor guitar by their doting uncle. Now Beth Corliss is Beth Silvestri, married to an Olympic yachtsman and living in San Francisco. The girl with three sisters now has three daughters: Allie, 9, Diana, 7, and Catherine, 4. Two weeks ago, they dropped by our Lower Manhattan loft.

It was pouring that Wednesday, but nothing could dampen the spirits of Beth and her brood. When we asked if by any chance the girls could perform a number, they quickly assumed their places. Allie and Diana conferred “backstage” as Catherine warmed up the audience of three. When there was a momentary delay, the four-year-old announced, “We will now have a brief intermission.” The soubrettes then materialized, to sing — not an Alicia Keys or Gretchen Wilson hit, but a number from “42nd Street,” the 1981 Broadway show revived three years ago and still running, and, in deepest antiquity, the 1933 Warner Bros. musical. And not the famous title song or the semi-standards “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” but the uptempo flirtation tune “Young and Healthy.” Diana, a chunky bundle of brio, sang the Dick Powell role. Allie, a slim sylph, had the Ruby Keeler-Peggy Sawyer part.

Diana ran through the vamp (“I know a bundle of humanity / She’s about so high / I’m nearly driven to insanity / When she passes by”), adding the appropriate gestures of a hand measuring the air, for height, and a clockwise motion to the head, for insanity. Then she launched into the chorus (“I’m young and healthy / And you’ve got charms / It would really be a sin / Not to have you in my arms”), plighting her troth, really pitching it, with a tenor’s full faux fervor. Allie took the second verse (“I’m young and healthy / And so are you / When the moon is in the sky / Tell me what am I to do?”), and her voice was as pure as demure as Diana’s was brassy. She held the notes like a trained and poised soprano.

At the song’s bridge (“If I could hate yuh/ I’d keep away / But that ain’t my nature / I’m full of vitamin A, say!”), each girl semaphored “hate” with raised palms and formed an A by touching her open thumbs and forefingers. When they repeated the bridge and got to “Vitamin A,” the seven-year-old deftly lifted the nine-year-old off the floor and into her arms. They belted out the last verse (“In a year or two or three/ Maybe we will be too old”) and concluded to rapturous applause from the audience of three: Mary, me and their beaming mom.

It was the most engaging amateur performance I’d seen since my cousin’s nephew Derek Nason, a devilishly handsome lad then in his mid-teens, wowed a family reunion nine years ago with his emotionally ferocious, sonically precise rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” I’d never seen a sexy Tevye before — imagine Johnny Depp channeling Zero Mostel — but Derek had, and gave, it all.

Allie and Diana’s duet gave Mary a brainstorm: let’s take the kids to see “42nd Street” (a road-show company of which Beth had taken the kids to in San Francisco) on 42nd Street. We had less than an hour to don our rain-gear, take a subway uptown and hope tickets were still available for the 8 o’clock performance. The deluge outside only heightened our giddy mood; some of us sang “Singin’ in the Rain” while others whirled, Gene Kelly-style, around lampposts. We arrived at the Ford Theatre and snapped up three pairs of seats and, thanks to code numbers from, saved about $250 off the list price. Mary sat in the third row with Diana. I was directly behind her with Allie. Beth took up the rear with Catherine.

The elder two girls knew the show by heart. As the curtain rose slightly, revealing three dozen pairs of shapely legs and happy feet, Diana whispered to Mary, “Julian Marsh is putting on a show!” — the play’s first line. As each number came up, the girls silently mouthed the lyrics and moved subtly in their seats, miming the actors’ gestures. At intermission, Diana strode into the aisle and did an expert tap routine — no small accomplishment, considering that she was barefoot. The theatergoers applauded her as vigorously as Mary and I had at home. A star was born.

We’re not a family of performing professionals. I was as close to the entertainment industry as my section of the Corliss clan got, And as a critic, of course, I’m basically a paid member of the audience — a voyeur, not an exhibitionist; a destroyer, not a creator. Yet the showbiz bug keeps infiltrating successive generations, keeps bringing them to New York. Derek is here now, waiting tables and taking courses as he and a friend hone their improv comedy act. His father, after a full career in the airline business, is now the executive director of a Denver-area symphony orchestra. Who knows, some time soon they may play Carnegie Hall. And in a year or two or three, the musical theater may open its heart to the singing Silvestris. After all, they’re young and healthy, and they’ve got charms. The girls may live 2,500 miles away, but that night they proved they’ve got Broadway in their blood.

And what do you know? Last night we played host to members of the next generation from Mary’s side of the family: Colton Anderson, 8, and his friend Arden Richelle, 9. At our local restaurant, the Odeon — three stars in the 1986 Britchky guide — Colton had a bowl of asparagus soup with snails, and instantly endeared himself to me by laughing at a very old joke. (Punch line: “Look at that ‘S’ car go!”) Then their mother and Aunt Donna took them to their first Broadway show, “Beauty and the Beast.” They loved it! The kids now have the CD, for immediate memorizing. We expect a return visit, when two other precocious kids can put the New York show on, right here.