Saturday, October 4, 2014

As If We Always Knew

It seemed for a while that "What I Did for Love" was going to become one of those inescapable songs, like "Feelings" or the song most usually known as "Mem'ry (from Cats)."  A Chorus Line was, after all, a phenomenal hit, a rare one for the mid-'70s that could be equally adored by aficionados of old-line musicals, those seeking some sign that musicals could still thrive in a rock-n-roll culture, and just the usual theatergoers who like a good story.  But at some point within a decade or so, it kind of went away for a while.  I thought it would be fun to think about that.

First up, a look at the song in its own milieu, albeit drawn from the generally regrettable 1985 film.  In the stage show, the song is a kind of benediction, the shared experiences of performers realizing they may not be able to dance much longer.  Alyson Reed makes it a more generic lament (and a moderately dull one), but at least she's in Cassie's regulation blue leotard and it's set on a stage.

The show opened in 1975; by '77, Eydie Gorme was singing the song on Carol Burnett, so you know it was a national sensation.  She does a good job, as if relieved that there's something new she can sing and sing well.  Some of Chorus Line's creators thought the song too generic, and it's true that there's not much of a dancer's sorrows in it specifically; even as a love song, it relies pretty heavily on the singer to tell a story.  Eydie's got great pipes, but she's not a heartbreaker.

Johnny Mathis got in even earlier, featuring "Love" in his September '75 TV special.  I don't usually think of Mathis as a singer of great nuance, but to me he hits this one out of the park.  I'm probably reading too much into it, as it seems to me he brings out a gay sensibility that lurks in the lyric of restrained heartbreak and clear-eyed failed romance.  There's a lot of pain there, but much resilience, too.  Good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, in 1979, Dame Shirley takes the song to the outer limits of the anthemic, and being Shirley Fucking Bassey, entirely gets away with it.  If Mathis brings a gay tinge to his rendition, this is the version heard (and sung, and lip-synched) in a thousand gay bars on ten thousand rainy nights.  God, I love this woman.

More recently, Miss Frozen herself, Adele Dazeem, sang it at the White House, and I'm afraid even the magisterial presence of the composer, Marvin Hamlisch (a name I am constitutionally unable to hear in any voice other than Lisa Lupner's), can't make the proceedings tolerable (and he seems quite minimally amused to be there).  I usually kind of like Miss Menzel, but not here.  She sounds like a peevish teenager and appears to be under some kind of mind-control influence by her hairstyle.  Come back, Eydie, all is forgiven.

So the song was omnipresent for a while, and now it's being it trotted out here and there again as a Broadway classic.

In that vein, it reached an apotheosis of sorts in 2012, as a glorified celebrity singalong at the New York Philharmonic's New Year's Eve gala.  Beautifully done, but any kind of competitive voice-off like this is going to be light on delicacy, which is something even old Belter Bassey manages to bring along with the brass.  That said, it does return the song to its roots as a shared stage experience, and it's moving in its own way to see the Noted Voices of today's theatre pay homage to that.  And as for Audra McDonald, I think I've already revealed that she could ask me the time of day and I'd probably start weeping.

So what happened in between?  There was definitely a level of overexposure for "What I Did."  Let's face it - we love Eydie Gorme, but her cachet among the cognoscenti was not immense in '79, and by the early '80s the song, at least in my memory, seemed something of a groaner.

I'm afraid this might be the reason.  Yes, it's the Merm, and yes, she's on Love Boat.  It's almost the last thing she did, and it isn't really a song one can associate with any of Merman's greatest strengths, but she's really rather touching, don't you think?

Still, the Merm is Broadway through-and-through, and so shares some connection with the song and its message.  That's not something one can say of Miss Leontyne Price, who graced Beverly Sills's Farewell Gala in 1981 with her take on "Love."  In its review of the evening, The New York Times called it "labored," and I only wish I could disagree.  In its defense, we now know what it would sound like if operas still did interpolations from the popular songbook, and this song were dropped in as an Act III specialty for the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.  Actually, I think it might work better there than it did for Price.

So it's no wonder it all got a little much there for a while.  These days, like every other song in creation, it's turned up on Glee, and YouTube delivers hundreds of interpretations - amateur, big band, you name it.  Our last take, though, is going to be from the song's heyday.  Only an audio recording, but I do hope you'll take a moment to sit back, empty your mind of the memory of Leontyne and all the others, and let Sister 'Retha take us home.

Aretha Franklin recorded "What I Did for Love" in 1977, and... it's pretty much all you'd hope it would it be.  With her recent outings (which I may have to write about when I get the strength), it's good to hear this voice in its prime and know just what a treasure it was.

That is something that I can't regret, and won't forget.  How about you?


  1. As much as I adore Dame Shirl, Señorita Gormé and the Queen of Soul, The Merm's version of this is quite heart-rending. An old trouper, full of memories and yet still very much the showgirl - it is the über-camp rendition this song deserves. Jx

  2. Even in the show, it's a good song, an attractive song, but not a great song. Taken out of the exact context of the moment in A CHORUS LINE for which it was written, it's almost a meaningless song. Sure, the music is piled high with schmaltz, but the lyrics are annoyingly vague, as if Ed Kleban had been pushed to write a love song, a part that could be sold separately. "Love" is not what the singer will remember. It's the love of an otherwise foolhardy passion, crazily pursued to an early retirement at 35 years of age, but still worthy of every bit of heartbreak that it brings. It's the context that gives the song its heft.

    Without the context, ya ain't got much to work with here. A diva with just a microphone and a spot light can't communicate any of that with these crummy lyrics, there is so little in them. Miss Price had the great benefit of singing the song at the farewell gala for Beverly Sills. (And who would care, given that final note she delivers. Wow!)

    Outside of retirement parties, this song is pointless. It's the only dramatically inert portion of A CHORUS LINE, but the schmaltz has carried it long and far. It will never be a great song. To borrow from GYPSY, if it could have been, it would have been... and that's show business.

    1. Well, it is what one brings to it, and in that sense a far blanker canvas than most standards ("These Foolish Things," a lyric that is practically a standalone novella, it ain't). To me that's why technical excellence alone (and who has more of that than Leontyne?) only highlights the emptiness you point out, while someone willing to pull it apart (Franklin) can use it as the basis for something wonderful.

      But your point really does highlight why it's not the lasting sensation it seemed for a while it would be.

    2. It can work, but what a difference it makes when it is part of the scene for which it was written.

      Downtown, at the Public.

      For some deeper context, here's Priscilla Lopez in the red and white checked coat and Baayork Lee in a red coat, dancing here for Michael Bennett, and both later in the original cast of A CHORUS LINE.

      (In the black coat is Joyce Ames, from the movie "Hello, Dolly!" and in the blue, not quite in step is, of course, Pia Zadora. No intro needed for the wonderful Alice Playten.)