Gotta Have Hart and Hammerstein
Birdland Jazz Club, New York
May 6, 2019
This performance by the man known as The Crown Prince of New York Cabaret was simply superb from start to finish! The evening went by so swiftly that I was surprised at its conclusion, that I had been seated for an hour and twenty minutes. Steve Ross, with the relaxed warmth and presence that only a truly seasoned performer possesses, regaled the packed house with twenty-nine songs affirming not only the brilliance of lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, but Ross’ own total mastery of skillfully nuanced song interpretation both as a singer and pianist.
At one point, Ross suggested that if Hart and Hammerstein were poets, that Hart could be called an "urban" poet whereas Hammerstein could be called a "pastoral" poet. This notion was abundantly clarified, as Mr. Ross presented a broad selection of lyrics written these two titans of both theater and film musicals, emphasizing their differences and convergences.
In addition, Ross doesn't just sit at the piano and sing song after song. He introduces each with words about context and history--and this allows the New York cabaret audience, (who have heard many of these songs repeatedly) to hear them anew. This renewed listening is amplified by Ross' thoughtfully composed harmonic settings, coupled with his powerfully understated way with the lyrics.
As Ross made clear, Larry Hart could indeed be heavy, even hardboiled with his humor, as with "He and She" from The Boys from Syracuse, which tells of an evolving, or rather, undulating unconventional couple. Hammerstein, on the other hand, was much softer--yes, and even poetic regarding male-female doings (as with "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" from the Paramount 1927 film, High, Wide and Handsome). Yet Hart would hit the poignant note in his own way with a song like "My Romance" from the 1935 Broadway show, Jumbo; "Isn't it Romantic" from the 1931 film Love Me Tonight, which makes appearances in even the most contemporary of films. Hammerstein wasn't big on broad humor, but Hart could go wild with it as in "The Roxy Music Hall" from Broadway's 1938 production of I Married an Angel.
Ross pointed out that when it comes to love songs, Hart, being renowned for his personal miseries, could be considered at his best with songs of "failed love," such as "Glad to Be Unhappy" from 1936's On Your Toes, and the sad "Nobody’s Heart" from the 1942 Broadway musical By Jupiter. Yet Hart could go decidedly on the upswing with a rousing song like "With a Song in My Heart" from 1929's Spring is Here.
Both Hart and Hammerstein's output was staggeringly enormous. Ross astutely selected songs which represented the range of their huge catalogues as much as could possibly be included in an hour plus show. In a presentation that featured one standout song after another, there are several songs which bear special mention. I particularly enjoyed a medley of Hart's songs about New York which included:
Manhattan" from The Garrick Gaieties (1925), "Way Out West on West End Avenue" from Babes in Arms (1937), and "Gotta Get Back to New York" from the film Hallelujah! I'm a Bum (1933), in which Al Jolson gave his only understated (and "watchable") film performance. Also outstanding was Ross' coupling of two Hammerstein's songs: "Make Believe" from Show Boat (1927) and "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I (1951). With the coupling of these two songs, Ross showed a meaningful expansion in Hammerstein's lyrical approach to "dreaming" nearly twenty-five years apart. In addition, Ross sang "To Keep My Love Alive" from A Connecticut Yankee (1943). I had only been familiar with Ella Fitzgerald's version from her album The Rodgers and Hart Songbook, in which she sang an abbreviated set of lyrics -- so it was a pleasure hearing the complete and humorously gruesome words.
Again, I want to emphasize that Steve Ross, throughout his entire performance, brought something new to each and every song. Lovers of the American song book like me are prone to find the way does this to be intriguing, magical, and compelling. Moreover, he accomplishes this without having to indulge anything akin to updating any of the songs he presented. He presents them with the timber of the times in which they were created. Yet, he managed to leave the listener with the experience that they are hearing the songs with fresh ears.
I've attended a half dozen performances of Steve Ross, and each was a revelation. For those with an interest in the art of popular song performance and who admire discernment with a flair in the songs selected, Steve Ross is a "must see" experience.