Thursday, December 30, 2004

Winter Songs

With the traditional Yuletide (or Twelve Days of Christmas if you're Christian) coming near their end, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss "winter songs." What is a winter song? Well, that is a term I use for songs about various aspects of winter that make no references to Yuletide, Christmas, or the holiday. In other words, they are more or less about winter.

I first took notice of this genre in 1999 when I realised that "Winter Wonderland" makes no mention of the holidays whatsoever. Instead, it is a song about two lovers walking and frolicking in the snow. The lyrics refer to sleigh bells, snow, building a snowman, and relaxing by a fire, but no references are made to Yule, Christmas, or any of the trappings thereof. For all extents and purposes, "Winter Wonderland" could be played anytime during the winter. At any rate, it is one of the great standards. It was written by the team of lyricist Dick Smith and composer Felix Bernhard, who wrote the song in 1934. It was a hit for Guy Lombardo that year. It would be in 1946, however, that the song would come into its own. Both Perry Como and the Andrew Sisters released versions of the tune that year, establisihing it as one of the great songs played during the holidays.

Of course, "Winter Wonderland" was not the first winter song. I am not sure what was--it was probably written long ago--but one of the oldest that is still played is "Jingle Bells." The song, so identified with the Yuletide, makes no reference. This is perhaps with good reason--it was first written for Thanksgiving! The song was written by minister James Pierpoint in 1857 for a Thanksgiving programme at the church in Boston where he preached. It was so popular that its performance was repeated at the Christmas programme and it has been linked to that season ever since. "Jingle Bells" makes no mention whatsoever of the Yuletide, but merely describes a ride in an one horse open sleigh through the snow. In fact, its original title was "One Horse Open Sleigh"

It might be tempting to say that "Sleigh Ride," which covers the same subject, is also a "winter song," but I am not so sure that it is. While the song simpy describes a sleigh ride for the most part, it also has references to pumpkin pies (a favourite in some parts at the holidays) and Currier and Ives (well known for their Yuletide prints).

While "Sleigh Ride" maybe as much a Christmas carol as a winter song, the same cannot be said for "Let It Snow." Like "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow" is essentially a love song. The song is essentially about two lovers snuggled together inside as it snows. No reference is made to the Yuletide or any other holiday. The song was written by lyricist Sammy Kahn and composer Jule Styne in 1945. It was a huge hit for Bing Crosby.

Love seems to be the one them running through most winter songs. It is definitely the theme of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The song was written as a duet by Frank Loesser in 1949 for the movie "Neptune's Daughter." There it was sung by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer. Quite simply, the song is a conversation between two lovers, one of who is begging the other to stay, and not entirely because of the cold weather. At no point is the Yuletide mentioned and the song could easly be played in January or February.

As blantant as he protagonist of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is in his intentions, the protagonist of "I Love the Winter Weather" is even more so. Written by Ted Shapiro in 1941, the song is simply loving winter weather because it allows two people to stay warm togehter! The song has been a hit for Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman and many others.

I am sure that there are more winter songs aout there, but these appear to be the most famous. Interestingly, with the exception of "Jingle Bells," every one of them is a love song. This presents an interesting contrast to summer songs, which seem to be more often about having fun (going to the beach, whatever). I suppose that is proof that winter is the most romantic season of them all.

Of course, what I find curious is that none of these songs are generally played at anytime other than the Yuletide. This strikes me as odd as all of them simply deal with winter and winter imagery. Not one of them mentions Yule, Christmas, or anything of the sort. Realistically, there is no reason that they can't be played at anytime between December and March. I suppose that in the United States our image of the Yuletide is so tied up with snow and winter that any song that refers to such is automatically a Christmas carol. A shame in some ways, as "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow" are beautiful tunes that should be played more often.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Great Jerry Orbach

One of my favourite actors had pased on. Tuesday night Jerry Orbach died of prostate cancer at age 69. He is best known as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order, but he was also a song and dance man who dominated Broadway for decades. In fact, Orbach's first appearance on television was tied to his career on the stage. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show singing "Her Face" from Carnival! in 1961.

Jerry Orbach was born in the city that made him a star, New York (the Bronx, to be exact) in 1935. His father was a performer in vaudeville and his mother a singer on radio. In 1955, after a stint at Northwestern University, Orbach began his career on the stage in New York. He was part of the original cast of The Fantasticks, playing the narrator.

The Fantasticks led to more major roles on Broadway. Orbach appeared in Carnival!, Promises, Promises, Chicago, and 42nd Street. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Baxter in Promises, Promises (based on the classic movie The Apartment).

Beyond his successful career on Broadway, Orbach also appeared in motion pictures. playing roles in F/X, the 1985 version of Brewster's Millions, and Crimes and Misdemeanours. He did a good deal of voice work for animated films, his most famous being the work he did in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. He was the voice of Lumiere the Candlestick in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, complete with a vocal part in the movie's show stopper "Be Our Guest."

Of course, Orbach's greatest claim to fame is perhaps his role as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. Orbach was on the series for 12 years, longer than any other cast member of the series and one of the longest runs for any actor in prime time television. Orbach had a secondary role as Briscoe in the new spinoff, Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Although best known on television for Law and Order, Orbach also starred in the 1987 series The Law and Harry McGraw, playing the private detective of the title. He had previously played McGraw in several episodes of Murder She Wrote.

I am truly saddened by Orbach's passing. In recent years, Law and Order is one of the few series I have watched regularly and Detective Briscoe was always my favourite character. I also watched The Law and Harry McGraw and enjoyed Orbach's performance there. He was a versatile actor, capable of both humour and drama. And as he proved on Law and Order, he could bring humour to the most serious of situations. I regret to say that I have only seen a few clips of his performances on Broadway, but he seems to have had a remarkable voice. It is a shame that Orbach's career came about just as the Hollywood musical was on the way out--he could have been a great star of movie musicals. Regardless, he was a great actor and created one of the greatest characters on television. Given his success on Broadway, it would seem that Jerry Orbach will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Odd Things One Learns in a Library

A while back at the library I was at work looking at our copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, one of my favourite novels. In the new afterword to the 1999 Avon Books hardcover edition of the book, Bradbury tells an interesting story. There he discusses his encounters with circuses and carnivals, both on film and in real life. Bradbury then mentions that he and his wife were invited by Gene Kelly to a showing of Invitation to the Dance. The carnvial sequence in the movie) struck a particular chord with Bradbury. He told his wife walking home from the film, "I'd give my right arm to write a screenplay for Gene Kelly." His wife told him she was certain that in his files he had something dealing with carnivals or circuses.

The two of them looked through his files and found an unfinished story entitled "The Black Ferris" that had been meant for The Dark Carnival (Bradbury's first anthology and his first book). Bradbury wrote an 80 page screenplay and sent it to Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly loved the screenplay and wanted to both produce and direct it. Unfortunately, he had difficulty getting backing for the project. Gene Kelly sent the script back to Bradbury. Bradbury then re-wrote the screenplay as a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Gene Kelly was then responsible for what many consider Ray Bradbury's greatest work!