Charles Strouse isn’t a name that immediately rings a bell with most people the way, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber does. If you say “the great musical composer, Charles Strouse” people don’t go “Ahhhh, right, of course”. But mention some of his iconic songs and right away the “wow, I didn’t know he wrote that“s and “seriously, that was him?“s come rolling in. So, for those of you who don’t know and need me to hum a few bars …
No? Not yet? How about
Warmer? Well you’ve gotta know this one …
Yeah? Starting to come together? Want the big finish?
OHHHHH! THAT’S Charles Strouse! Yes … THAT’s Charles Strouse, writer of musicals such as Bye, Bye, Birdie, Annie, Applause and composer of movie scores and TV scores like “All in the Family”. With writing partner Lee Adams he penned half a dozen musicals, and even after that collaboration ended he went on to create a half dozen more with other lyricists (most notably one of my 2nd favorite Musical Theatre Stephens after Sondheim — Stephen Schwartz — for Rags).
On Wednesday night I attended The President’s Forum: An Evening with Charles Strouse at the New School. Being able to sit and hear this man talk about his illustrious career was almost unparalleled; born in 1928 Strouse is a rare gem: someone who was trained in the discipline of music in a way that quite possibly doesn’t even exist anymore who is able to turn on the radio and hear a song with roots in music he helped create. When he speaks of harmonics it’s with the verbosity of a musical professor; how tones relate to each other, why notes are meant to be paired with each other, explanations as to why one tone follows another, and how to write a piece of music in order to maintain control over an arrangement. This is not a man who wandered upon a hit song by haphazardly plonking out a tune on the keyboard.
Born into a middle class family to parents who didn’t quite get along Mr. Strouse spoke about evenings gathered around the piano as his mother, a jazz pianist, played old favorites. It was this memory of his childhood that was the seed that sparked the now iconic All In The Family opening (and of course, the Family Guy opening too, no doubt).
He spent time as Lee Strasberg‘s piano player and watched as the likes of Marilyn Monroe worked through scenes in The Actor’s Studio. He paid his dues as a Movietone News composer writing background music for such stirring pieces as “Chorines March to War” (and even here he can dissect the technicalities, explaining how everything was written in 2nds and glissandos so that the music could be edited to fit the piece).
He scored industrial films, one of which (for Van Heusen) he later partially repurposed and unwittingly gave birth to the opening phrase of one of the best known little girl anthems of all time, Tomorrow … (Ya wanna feel young? Van Heusen!)
Speaking of Tomorrow … it’s inescapable, I’m sure, for Mr. Strouse to get around talking about it. I was lucky enough to see Lisa Loeb in person recently and she performed (amoung other songs I enjoyed) Stay. She was asked by an audience member what her feelings were about the song … she of course replied that she owed her career to it. However, Mr. Strouse had many melodies to his credit long before this little ditty (written to fill in the two-to-three minutes needed for a scene changed). When Mr. Strouse was asked to play it on the piano (he played several numbers that night) I did an inward groan. Really? I mean, I was honored to be in the presence of the man but … really? That treacley little number? Howsabout another song from Goldenboy?
However, when Mr. Strouse played the opening notes of the song it forever shifted for me. I don’t think I will ever hear the song the same way again (and for that I am very grateful). The Tomorrow that Mr. Strouse played was jazzy, undiluted, sublte, and best of all, not an anthem as much as a shrug. Not a punch in the face but an inevitability — a restating of “Tomorrow’s another day”. There was no hanging on for dear life … “I just stick out my chiiiiiiin and griiiin and saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay …. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH!”
In fact, hearing this 81 year old man happily singing along to his playing of this song just about made the rest of my year. And for the first time the song brought tears to my eyes and a wide smile to my face.
Aside from all that, one of the most beautiful things about hearing this man speak about his illustrious career is to hear how much he loves his wife and credits her with making him who he is. He speaks of her dearly, and it elicited several “awww”s from the audience — especially after hearing about his dysfunctional childhood and what it meant to grow up with a mother who was eventually committed due to mental illness.
I enjoyed every moment in the presence of Mr. Charles Strouse, and I encourage you to take a look at his book: Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir which has all these stories and more. The only thing missing is his performance of Tomorrow. The good news is that this event was videotaped and will be available for viewing on the New School’s YouTube site in a few weeks. I urge you to check it out.