Sonny Fox sings the praises of great American songwriters at Westport Library
Published 7:10 am, Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Fox played video clips of composers and lyricists talking about the famous and familiar Broadway songs or film scores that they created, clips that Fox said hadn't been seen in decades. Between the short segments, Fox related biographical anecdotes about those on screen -- and promoted his autobiography, "But You Made the Front Page: Wonderama, War, and a Whole Bunch of Life."
Fox, a World War II veteran, former host of the long-running children's television program "Wonderama" and an executive and broadcasting consultant, illustrated his library presentation with excerpts from "The Songwriter," the series he produced for CBS Cable in the early 1980s that profiled Broadway composers and lyricists from the golden age of musicals.
"I want to bring these out again," he said of the clips. "They were in circulation for a while, but they haven't been in circulation for maybe 25 years. I looked at these and I said, `These deserve to be seen.' These are really wonderful, historical and irreplaceable bits of music."
Yip Harburg sang "Over the Rainbow" in one clip, and Fox put the classic "Wizard of Oz" song into context: Harburg had gone bankrupt in 1929 and, seven years later, having become a lyricist instead of a businessman, was singing about blue skies following a rainstorm, where dreams come true.
"He really did believe there might be a rainbow, and he looked for it. He was very left wing ... It ended up costing him heavily," Fox said, explaining that Harbug had been banned for performing, writing or going abroad from 1950 to 1962 as a result of anti-Communist scares during the McCarthy era.
In another clip, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and Liz Robertson sang "Why Can't a Woman Be Like a Man?" from "My Fair Lady." At the end of the clip, Lerner mentioned that the noticeably younger Robertson was his wife.
"Not just his wife, his eighth wife," Fox said, indignantly.
Lerner lived in England for the last years of his life because he owed taxes in America, Fox said. "Marrying eight times will get you to that. His third wife was an Italian lawyer. If you ever want to stay out of trouble, don't divorce an Italian lawyer," Fox said.
Lerner's royalties would go to the Isle of Man, a tax haven between Britain and Ireland, Fox said. "A man would come out of the Isle of Man once a month with a carpet bag to London, where he was living. He would then open up the carpet bag and dig out a batch of pound notes to give to him. That's what Alan would live on for a month. That's the way he had to live. Any time you want to get married eight times, think about that. Don't do that."
Later came a clip featuring "Fiddler on the Roof" lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Fox explained the genesis of a lyric from "If I Were a Rich Man," about a "one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere, just for show."
Fox said his mother talked of picking up newly arrived immigrants and taking them to a tenement on Essex Street. "She said, ... `I knew we were rich from the minute I walked in.' Why did she knew she was rich? They had staircases. Because in the shtetl, only a rich man had a second floor and therefore had staircases. Now think about the ability to understand that that was a very specific way a man in that station of life would imagine himself being rich -- the staircase."
"They could have saved a lot of money and just cast them in the show," Fox said.
Fox identified a man in the audience. Paul Bogaev, music director for the film version of "Chicago," stood up.
"You're right, there's nothing like a lyricist and a composer do it," Bogaev said. "He came up to Toronto when we were doing the film. I remember like it was today singing "Razzle Dazzle" for Richard Gere, and there's nothing like it, seeing somebody who wrote it. You're absolutely right."
Afterwards, Larry Perlstein was one of the first in line to buy a copy of Fox's book and get it autographed. Perlstein said he had been interviewed by Fox on "Wonderama," as, he said, a surprising number of Westport residents were as children.
Fox's presentation on songwriters was "spectacular," he said.
"He's just a gem," Perlstein said. "Brings to life stuff we should be celebrating."