Posted on May 10, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Among the many problems particular to musical theatre writers is the occasional need to write a song that the audience thinks is bad. Some moment in the script will call for a delusional hack or an over-the-hill ingenue to burst forth with what they think is a fantastic number, and we are immediately supposed to realize that it’s terrible. The problem is that the moment is not just about the song, it’s also about illuminating the character, and so the writers of the show must be very careful. It can’t just be a bad song; it also has to be good.

Of the Golden Age songwriters, Comden & Green especially seem to have warmed to this peculiar task. “I Wish I Was Dead” from On The Town, “Thanks a Lot But No Thanks” from It’s Always Fair Weather, “The Wrong Note Rag” from Wonderful Town, and virtually the entire score of Say Darling are all masterful showcases of deliberate mediocrity. Sondheim and Jule Styne had to face up to the issue with Dainty June’s material in Gypsy, and Sondheim on his own battled it with his sort-of-loving pastiches of “Rain on the Roof” and “Ah Paree!” in Follies. My personal favorite creator of good bad songs would be Frank Loesser; both “Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” manage simultaneously to be utterly stupid and totally fabulous.

But then there’s the issue of Cole Porter.

Those of us who love the work of Cole Porter know that, for all his genius and technical facility, the man was perfectly capable of signing his name to some of the laziest, most reprehensibly inane dogshit in the history of the musical theatre.

Even his two indisputably great theatrical scores, Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, have some serious turds floating in the champagne. Sure, you can have “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “So In Love,” but you must endure “Bon Voyage” or “We Sing of Love.” And before you argue that Porter’s generation didn’t take the art of character writing as seriously as Loesser or Sondheim, let me note that there is nothing in the entire catalogues of Rodgers & Hart or Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern that’s as brazenly dreadful as “Bianca.”

I fell in love with Cole Porter’s songs in high school. I was hired as a second pianist at a local community theatre’s production of Cole (a British revue of his songs) and was thunderstruck by the invention and daring of the writing. It’s safe to say that not many other 15-year-olds in 1985 were spending their afternoons marveling at the chords for “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or howling with laughter at “You’ve Got That Thing,” but those songs were a thousand times more interesting to me than football or the Nanuet Mall. I was simply amazed. The pop music I had been happily listening to up to that point did not concern itself with craft; Porter’s stuff was craft to the nth degree, with deep pockets of emotion hidden in the lining. It was captivating and inspiring. I went to the Finkelstein Memorial Library and, with the cheerful lack of discernment that is the hallmark of teenage infatuation, I checked out every LP that had a Cole Porter song on it, one after the other.

And that is how I discovered “The Red Blues.”

I’m not a big fan of the Broadway cast album of Silk Stockings – something about Don Ameche just strikes me as oleaginous. But the movie is something else entirely, a sumptuous lark with a divine Cyd Charisse at the center, courted by a somewhat musty but still enormously charming Fred Astaire. It’s not the best MGM musical ever made, by a long shot, but it’s very funny and has some sensational dancing, and I’ve watched it hundreds of times.

Towards the end of the story, Boroff, a great Russian composer, declares that he has given up writing longhair music and fallen in love with American jazz. To prove it, he shows us the new song he has written. Here are the lyrics:

We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red Blues.
We got the Red, Red, Red –
That’s what we said –
Red Blues.

In the movie, these are the only lyrics. The Broadway version actually continues with “Why not the white blues?/Why not the black blues?/Why not the” Oh my God I can’t go on.

And the music? I guess I’ll concede that some of the chord changes are surprising, but the melody is unimaginably pedestrian. I guess it fits the lyrics perfectly.

Can you imagine the balls it must have taken to write that crap and then bring it in to the producers of your expensive new Broadway musical and say, “Here’s the big 11 o’clock number?” I am in AWE.

Now mind you, by the time you get to “The Red Blues” in Silk Stockings, you’ve already suffered through the stultifying “Josephine” (mercifully truncated in the final print of the film) and “Fated to Be Mated” (horrifying!), and still to come is the unspeakable “Ritz Roll and Rock.” But even in that august company, “The Red Blues” stands out with shocking impudence.

So why do I love it? It’s not about Cyd Charisse, though her dancing is retina-searingly sexy. It’s entirely about the music.

If you have any aspirations to be an arranger or an orchestrator for the musical theatre, “The Red Blues” shows you just how high the bar is set. The arrangement in the film is credited to Albert Woodbury and Skip Martin, who were MGM’s go-to guys for “hot jazz”; and the music supervisor was André Previn, who knew plenty about how to make things swing (listen to the recording of “My Fair Lady” that he made with his trio – the more staid the song is, the harder they cook).

So here were three arrangers who had invented virtually every trick in the book for making a big number build and land, and they had at their disposal the MGM Studio Orchestra, which I’ll argue was the best collection of studio musicians on the planet at that time. So let’s look at what they do with this lox of a song to make it fly.

The Broadway version of the song is depressingly straightforward, a perfunctory Dixieland arrangement that’s several metronome markings slower than the movie. Woodbury and Martin have something very different in mind.

They start with just the instruments you see on the screen, an upright piano, drums, balalaika (no, really!), accordion and trumpet, plus an upright bass that must be hiding behind the curtain. (The trumpet doesn’t play until the second chorus, but there’s the actor idiotically miming away from the beginning anyway.)

When we get to the first instrumental break (at 0:47 in the video), Woodbury and Martin start playing a fun game. The orchestration here is supposed to evoke the 1930’s – the clarinet on top of the woodwind choir, and the brass playing a “square,” ricky-ticky figure.

The next chorus (at 1:24) jumps ahead a decade; it’s all Glenn Miller/Benny Goodman-style Big Band playing.

Once Cyd Charisse takes over (at the two-minute mark), we are finally in the Here-And-Now of the 1950’s, a wonderful choice given the evolution of Charisse’s character. Even the orchestra mix changes to a much wider and fuller sound.

The first two notes of this section are taken from the melody of the song, but after that, it’s straight-up blues. Dig how the seventh and eighth measure jump into double-time, then settle back in to the slow blues tempo for four bars before effortlessly rolling between both for the last eight measures of the section.

Note also how the arrangement flows without hitting every kick and turn of the dance routine. Most contemporary Broadway dance arrangers and choreographers collude in the idea that a movement onstage is somehow insufficient without a cymbal, triangle or choir of trumpets to accent it. It makes dance numbers sound like circus routines, and I find the practice unmusical, annoying and distracting. This clip shows how utterly unnecessary that is.

The choruses starting at 2:55 are classic MGM-style Big Band writing. I love how in the first chorus, the trombones trade the melody off to the trumpets (at 3:06), and in the second chorus, the process is reversed at the same place. The band is sizzling by the time we get to 3:38, and those trumpet hits are my favorite part of the whole song, simple but deeply satisfying.

Then we get to the choir entrance to build to the finale, a classic MGM effect (think of Ann Miller in “Shakin’ The Blues Away” in Easter Parade). I’m nuts for this insane double-time feel, and the brass figures are a hoot. You can barely hear it on the YouTube clip, but the accordion player is absolutely blowing his brains out in this section (you can hear it much more clearly on the soundtrack album version, which I’ll link below). It’s a wonderful touch because it connects the number back to the “Russian band” feel that started it off. You don’t need the accordion, but it’s part of the character of the movie and the song. As ludicrous as the song is, the arrangers are trying to give the sequence a kind of musical integrity.

How did anyone get four and a half minutes of ass-kicking music out of that rotten tune? Well, that’s what I love about it: These arrangers just threw one musical idea after another at it, believing that sheer inventiveness and dexterity could elevate a song of nap-inducing banality to something pretty close to Show Business Heaven.

And they were right.

(You can buy the soundtrack album version of “The Red Blues” – in a delightfully clear remix – on iTunes, by clicking here. Enjoy!)

POSTSCRIPT: Music director and scholar John Baxindine wrote to tell me that, while he did not disagree with my opinion of the song itself, he felt obliged to augment my somewhat incomplete understanding of the authorship of “The Red Blues.” I am both a little relieved and a little disappointed to acknowledge the information John passed on. The following excerpt is from Steven Suskin’s invaluable book “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations” (Oxford University Press, 2009):

With [Silk Stockings] in trouble during an extended tryout and the ailing Porter back in New York, [Don] Walker [the principal orchestrator] was called upon to fill in for the composer, as described in a letter from Walker to general manager Monty Schaff: “As practically everyone connected with Silk Stockings knows, I had quite a bit to do with the tune of ‘Red Blues.’ In case this situation worries you, you may file this statement. I hereby, in consideration of this payment for $500, relinquish any claim upon the aforesaid production and or Cole Porter for any composing I may have done in connection with ‘Red Blues.'”