ASCAP's Diamond Jubilee bash Monday night at the Shubert Theatre just may have been the biggest, classiest, most entertaining "and-then-I-wrote" event ever staged.
The concert--in which 40 top songwriters performed their best-known works--ran for four hours, but few in the audience grew restless. The seamless production and the sheer quality of the music kept the show from seeming long. And the warm camaraderie among the songwriters kept the event from seeming like a competition.
The event was a salute to ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the oldest and largest music licensing association. The organization, founded in 1914 by a group of composers that included Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, has represented much of the century's greatest pop music, and Monday's showcase reflected that legacy.
The focus in the first half was on songs from vintage Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals. The second half was devoted to the past three decades, including a much-anticipated reunion of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
The roster included household names such as Bacharach and Henry Mancini and writers who are little known to the general public despite having collaborated on some of the landmarks of popular music. Among them: Mitchell Parish ("Star Dust"), David Raksin ("Laura") and Gerald Marks ("All of Me").
The lineup ranged from current chart-topper Diane Warren ("I Get Weak") to 93-year-old Harry Tobias ("Sweet and Lovely"), who was escorted by his songwriter brother, Henry Tobias.
Said Henry about Harry: "You know, he's outlived all his publishers, and, God willing, he might make it into public domain himself."
Most of songs were performed by their composers, but a few guest vocalists brightened the proceedings. Crystal Gayle offered a bluesy reading of Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me a River"; Patty Andrews delivered a rousing version of Sammy Cahn's "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," and Dinah Shore performed a warm version of Sammy Fain's "Dear Hearts and Gentle People."
The show never really got around to rock (except for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), R&B (except for Smokey Robinson) or country. The concert would have been more representative of what's happening in music today if it had covered these bases, though it also probably would have run for eight hours. Maybe ASCAP should consider a sequel later in this anniversary year focusing on those areas.
The temptation after a marathon event like this is to say, "They just don't write 'em like that anymore."
And, in one respect, it's true.
Great songs continue to be written, but the tradition of urbane, witty, literate pop songs from Broadway and the movies seems to be a dying art. Just think how the caliber of the songs nominated for the Oscar each year has deteriorated in the past two decades: From "Alfie" to "Say You, Say Me."
Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand have had great success covering standards from the '30s and '40s, and Michael Feinstein has built a career on it. But for the most part these songs are ignored by the rock-dominated music-industry Establishment.
The Broadway/Hollywood tradition was represented on Monday's show by Betty Comden and Adolph Green ("Make Someone Happy"); Cy Coleman ("If They Could See Me Now"); Burton Lane ("How About You"), and Charles Strouse ("Put On a Happy Face"). Appropriately, during this segment the writers sat around a piano as if they were at a Manhattan piano bar.
Glenn Ballard, who performed his recent Michael Jackson hit "Man in the Mirror" on the show, noted in an interview after the concert that he's inspired by songs from the '30s and '40s.
"There's an urbanity to those songs," Ballard said. "Melody is king, and the lyrics are sophisticated and yet really accessible. There's something gentler about those songs. There's a joie de vivre about them. Even though contemporary writers like myself have to work in our own garden, so to speak, I really enjoy that tradition."
Michael Stewart, a veteran music publisher, was also moved by the old standards. He said in an interview after the show: "You see those great talents and you wonder if the young people will ever feel the same way about those songs. I feel badly that there's a lot of young people who don't know them. A lot of kids nowadays don't even know the Beatles songs."
Gerald Marx commented on this phenomenon during the show in introducing "All of Me," which he wrote in 1931. He recalled a recent visit to the University of Indiana, where the school orchestra was preparing to record the song. Since the song has been recorded scores of times over the years by such singers as Billie Holiday, Marx assumed the students knew the piece--until a student in the orchestra told him: "That song is beautiful. . . . Good luck with it."