Beyond Compare: BJ Ward sings Marshall Barer at the Crazy Coqs, London.
Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★
It was brave of a cabaret performer few had heard of to give over her first London gig to a songwriter, Marshall Barer, whose prolific output – he wrote almost 3,000 lyrics – is mostly lost in the mists of time.
That’s what Los Angeles-based BJ Ward, a noted voice-over actress who numbers Betty Rubble in The Flintstones and Velma from Scooby Doo among her creations, attempted at her one-night debut at the Crazy Coqs.
And if we went off home unconvinced that the witty, eccentric, promiscuous, confrontational, drug-addicted Barer was an exceptional lyricist, there was plenty to be learned about this bizarre man from Ward’s entertaining patter.
If you asked anyone to name a Barer song, they might come up with something from his one successful musical Once Upon A Mattress which he wrote with Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary to become a Tony-nominated show in 1959 – ‘Man to Man Talk’ was Mary’s favourite.
Or perhaps this show’s title song will have resonated with some. It was written with David Ross for a 1992 movie called Venice/Venice, the first two lines of which – “How do I love thee/Let me count the ways” – Barer nicked from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem.
I liked the ballad ‘C’est Comme Ca’ (from Pousse-Cafe) best, but it was the Mighty Mouse theme (‘Here I Come to Save the Day’) he wrote in the back of a cab for the supermouse cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s that earned him most fame and fortune.
Ward featured ‘Mighty Mouse’ in a 19-song set rounded off by a 1964 collaboration with Michel Legrand, one of many big names he consorted with in a long career. Typically, that musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days never got closer to Broadway than Long Island.
Mattress apart, his attempts at conquering Broadway flopped. Pousse-Cafe, a musical of The Blue Angel written with Duke Ellington, opened there on a Friday and closed on Saturday, while Once Over Lightly, a Barber of Seville-based musical comedy, lasted only six performances.
Barer also co-wrote a number of revues, was a wicked parodist of Broadway’s good and great, and latterly, as a born storyteller, an in-demand Los Angeles cabaret performer.
But he was just too much for many people, even in such an OTT industry. When Mattress was revived on Broadway in 1996 he had to be barred from rehearsals after his loud disapproval of the star, Sarah Jessica Parker, and abuse of the director, Gerald Gutierrez.
Barer was close to marrying his collaborator Mary Rodgers until her disapproving father, the great Richard, intervened. “Why not just marry Truman Capote?” he flippantly asked. “I knew Marshall was gay, but I needed a good lyricist!” Mary said later on.
One of his favourite sayings was: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up.” Another was: “The hills are alive with the sound of unpublished music, mostly from unpublished musicals.”
But if Barer is largely forgotten, his work survives thanks to the missionary zeal of artists like BJ Ward. She’s not the greatest singer in the world, but in cabaret that’s not as important as love. And her love for Barer shone through an hour as enlightening as it was entertaining.
The wonderful Simon Wallace’s piano can only enhance any performer and Ward was also assisted by Warren Zielinski on violin and Simon Woolf on bass.