December 20, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Lush life 

Seventy years from now, it's not likely that anybody in a piano bar will be walking over to the pianist and requesting "My Humps," the classic by Black Eyed Peas.

But seven decades after it was written, there are still plenty of requests for "My Funny Valentine."

That's a classic, and that's the kind of enduring music that fascinates Michael Lasser.

Over the last three decades, Lasser has parlayed his deep love for the American song into an award-winning radio show and too many lectures to count. Now, with co-author Philip Furia, Lasser has published "America's Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley." Although it's his first book, in many ways Lasser has been working on it his whole life.

Born in Newark in 1936, Lasser spent all of his early years in close proximity to New York City. His mother was a lover of the ballet, art, and theater, and by the age of 9, he was regularly going into Manhattan with his family.

"I grew up not knowing that classical ballet was for sissies," says Lasser.

Some of his earliest visits to the theater made an indelible impression. Lasser still vividly remembers the tour-de-force performance of Ray Bolger in Frank Loesser's "Where's Charley" in 1952.

"In those days, when you changed the scene you had to close the curtain and you had to do something in front of the curtain. He did 'Once In Love With Amy,' and it was an old-fashioned star turn. It was just Bolger on stage for 25 minutes, singing, dancing, doing comedy. I'm convinced there was an element of improvisation. There was a wonderful looseness to it."

Broadway is interwoven with major events of his life. He remembers taking his future wife Elaine to see "My Fair Lady" for her 21st birthday. But he never planned on making Broadway (after teaching) a second career.

"I stumbled into what I do," says Lasser, sitting in the upstairs study at his Penfield home, where almost an entire wall is occupied by books on American songs.

What he does is "Fascinatin' Rhythm," a weekly, one-hour radio show exploring American popular music. Over the past 26 years, Lasser has broadcast more than 1,000 shows. Originating at WXXI-Classical 91.5, the program is syndicated by the station to markets like Honolulu, San Francisco, and Spokane.

Lasser doesn't just play the music. He spends several hours most weeks carefully crafting an essay examining a particular theme. When he talks about a song, there is reverence in his voice; when he quotes a lyric, it's often rhapsodic.

His efforts have resulted in a prestigious Peabody Award, presented in 1994, for letting "our treasury of popular tunes speak (and sing) for itself with sparkling commentary tracing the contributions of the composers and performers to American society."

Lasser and Furia, who live 1,000 miles apart, collaborated on the book by e-mail. Furia, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington,has written five books, including the highly regarded "Poets of Tin Pan Alley."

In the planning stages, Lasser and Furia met for four days at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center Their first order of business: make a list of the 300 songs they would cover. The trouble was, their combined list totaled 700 songs.

"We agreed to go up to our hotel rooms after dinner, and the next morning at breakfast we would each have 300 songs. Talk about the same wave-length: only seven songs didn't overlap."

Although the book spans the years from 1910 to 1977, Lasser believes the golden age of the American song was from 1920s to the 1950s. He says there were historical contingencies that made the cultural setting ripe for a golden age.

"Before 1915, a lot of the musical comedies on Broadway were coming over from England and being adapted for American tastes. Now they can't come over, because World War I is raging in Europe and there's a submarine war in the Atlantic. So suddenly, American songwriters who were writing a lot of interpellations for British shows had the opportunity to write scores."

Who the songwriters were was the result of another contingency.

"They were children of immigrants, most Jewish, who were fighting the struggle between the synagogue and the street. The poor synagogue never had a chance. Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin: they can't go to work for JP Morgan Bank, not with their last names. But they can write songs."

Many, Lasser says, changed their Jewish names. Berlin was born Israel Isidore Baline; Cantor was born Israel Iskowitz. Of all of them, Lasser believes Berlin was the greatest. Over his career he wrote 3000 songs but published only 1,500 because his standards were so high.

On the cover of the book is a reproduction of a 1913 sheet-music cover featuring a caricature of a black pianist. This is no accident.

"When it comes to music, black plus Jewish equals American. Ragtime and jazz are absorbed. The melody is filtered through Yiddish lullaby. There's a strong streak of melancholy, and the greatest songs are the saddest: "Stormy Weather," "Blues in the Night."

And there's one more crucial ingredient: the conversational lyric. Gone is the formality of the European song.

"Lyrics start to sound like people talking, capture the rhythms and vitality of speech. 'Grab your coat and grab your hat, leave your troubles on the door step', 'What'll I do when you are far away.'"

Lasser believes that songs today, by contrast, are self-referential. For one thing, music and lyrics are usually written by the same person.

"That means almost anybody can be a songwriter, which I guess is very democratic but it doesn't bode well for the highest quality. It's like giving everybody a paintbrush and saying, You're an artist; you have an artist's soul.

"You may have an artist's soul, but you can't paint worth shit. That's a way we lie to our kids. Everybody can be an artist. Only a few can be good. Even fewer can be great."

One term used in the book to describe songs is "the iceberg effect," the idea that there is so much more implied in three minutes of lyrics.

"You can compare songs to short stories or one-act plays," says Lasser, "but in a way, they are most like representational paintings. They're frozen moments that imply a past and a future. It's a moment in a larger dramatic setting."

He doesn't believe songs are poems.

"It's easy to compare a song to a poem, but I think that's dangerous, because people start calling songs poems. Bob Dylan's not a poet, he's a songwriter. John Ashbury's a poet."

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Great American Songbook is the way some of the songs reflected their time. Lasser points to Ira Gershwin's lyrics for "Our Love Is Here to Stay":

"The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend

"the world and all its capers, and how this all will end...."

The first reference, he points out, is not to how the singer feels, but to the world, by way of newspapers. "That was written in 1938. It's the year of the Munich Pact. It's the year of the Anschluss."

Many other songs seem to capture the zeitgeist.

"'I'll Be Seeing You' resonated during the war because it's about hope," says Lasser.

Broadway reached a crossroads in the mid-1950s, when pop music turned toward rock and roll.

"It was an alien music to them," says Lasser. "They had been raised in Ragtime. Kern had some training in operetta. They were appalled by it. Rogers was especially adamant about it. This was music of the young, and they were men in their 50's and 60's. While we have affection for it, the lyrics were inane. Tutti Frutti: give me a break!

"They saw it as banal, inane, lacking anything beautiful or witty. They saw that wonderful mix they had created of wit and sentiment going out the window, and they said this doesn't belong on Broadway. In terms of sustaining an audience it was disastrous."

Of course, there were successful rock musicals, like "Jesus Christ Superstar." To Lasser, they are about something else: spectacle.

"Aristotle was right when he said spectacle was the least important component of theater because it's unnecessary."

Not surprisingly, Lasser has a negative opinion of the state of Broadway today. He believes it's dead, a tourist industry.

Not even the great contemporary writer Stephen Sondheim can win him over.

"He's extraordinary," says Lasser, "but I think in the last 10 years he stopped writing theater. Things like 'Passion' and 'Assassins': I think they're song sequences that they put on a stage."

And don't get him started on the trend of spectacular musicals like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables."

"I detest 'Les Miz,'" he says. "There are only two good songs: 'The Barricades,' because it's exciting, and 'Master of the House' because it has great pizzazz. But if one more person had gotten down on his knees and had the wheel bring him around to the front so that he could pour out his heart to us, I was going to stand up and scream, 'get a second idea!'"

He also has strong feeling about pop interpretations of classics.

"I get annoyed at performers who don't trust the song. Barbara Streisand gets me angry; Liza Minnelli gets me catatonic, because they're not serving the song.

And today's trend of jukebox musicals, involving the songs of Abba, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and others, doesn't impress him.

"That's not theater," says Lasser.

After 26 years on the radio, you might think Lasser would be at a loss for fresh themes. Think again.

A recent program, titled "Keep Your Underwear on," consisted of "songs about underwear, pajamas, and the onset of nudity."

"An hour of precaution and of throwing caution to the wind," he says.

With a data base of 18,517 songs, he won't be running out of ideas any time soon.

Since retiring from the English department at Harley, where he taught for 32 years, Lasser has had more time for research and lectures. He gives two or three dozen talks a year, most of them at museums. He also collaborates on concerts with Cindy Miller and Alan Jones.

And he's writing a second book, taking for his title a line from an Irving Berlin song: "That Pleasant Ache: How We Sang About Love, 1900 to 1950."

But Lasser is looking well beyond these activities.

"When I die and then open my eyes, if I'm in a room, and coming through the door is Ginger Rogers as she looked in Astaire-Rogers movies, and she's looking over her shoulder saying, 'No, Fred, I'd rather be with him,' I'll know where I am."

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