Composer Jule Styne wrote some 1500 songs in a long career in Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and on Broadway. Everything’s Coming Up Roses: The Jule Styne Songbook, opening at London’s Crazy Coqs on 2 September, is a tribute to a great songwriter who died 20 years ago this month.
Devised and directed by Alastair Knights (Putting It Together, The Elaine Paige Show on Sky), Everything’s Coming Up Roses features performers Simon Bailey, Tim Flavin, Anna Francolini and Amy Lennox.
Below, musical director ALEX PARKER (Stephen Ward, Putting It Together, The Pajama Game) talks about the show.
With so many songs to choose by Jule Styne, it must have been a case of what to leave out, as Styne never wrote a bad song. Does the show stick to the stage musicals or does it cover the whole career of hit parade, films and Broadway?
We cover quite a range of songs. There are several unearthed gems in our revue – music from his musicals, films and some written for individual artists as well. There doesn’t seem to be a duff one in his catalogue!
Even with the theatre songs, there’s 50 years of shows to choose from, including High Button Shoes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, My Sister Eileen, Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Do Re Mi, Darling of the Day, Funny Girl, Sugar and Bar Mitzvah Boy. Do you have any favourites?
Of course, Gypsy has to be my ultimate favourite. BUT, Funny Girl comes a close second. Though most recently, I really like the score to Gentleman Prefer Blondes. We have that show’s opening number – ‘It’s High Time’ – in our revue and it is one of the best opening numbers to a musical that I have come across.
Were you involved in the creation of the show with Alastair Knights?
Yes, Alastair and I have created this together. Although, it would be unfair to take equal credit, as Jule Styne is a particular favourite composer of Alastair’s. I made a few requests, but Alastair put the main bulk of the show together, and then it has been my job to make it musically make sense in the context of our revue.
Jule Styne was born in London but moved to the US with his parents at the age of eight. He had an interesting early life, having been an infant prodigy on the piano and he eventually started his own band. Does the show cover his life as well as his work?
We haven’t chosen to go down that route. Alastair and I have put together a number of revues and shows that celebrate composers’ work before. We have come up with a very basic story that is the thread that holds the evening together, which helps give a context and through line to everything, and therefore helps (we hope!) make sense of the material we have chosen.
Do you think that, had Styne stayed in Britain, he would have developed in the way that he did in the US? He was obviously attracted to American popular music, so that the US was the real making of him and got him into Hollywood and Broadway.
I think Jule Styne is arguably the ultimate quintessential Broadway composer, and the opportunities at the time to make it as a composer on Broadway and in Hollywood were far greater than in Britain. The expectation and environment will have certainly influenced his very distinct style in a way that it might not have developed if he had stayed in Britain.
Of course Styne worked with some of the most celebrated lyricists in Sammy Cahn, Leo Robin, Comden and Green, Frank Loesser, Yip Harburg, Bob Merrill and Stephen Sondheim, to drop just the top names. Do you think it was Styne’s exceptional music that brought out the best in his lyricists?
Absolutely. There is no two songs the same musically, and yet there are countless greats. Jule Styne clearly had an ear for marrying lyrics and music perfectly. He also had such a library of musical ideas in his head, that the opportunity and world of possibilities for a lyricist will not have only been very attractive, but will undoubtedly have brought out the best in them.
Jule Styne has said that: “Any composer who could write for both a Sinatra and a Streisand in one lifetime is lucky.” Don’t you think it should be the other way around? Any singer given any Jule Styne song to sing should be more than grateful – they are blessed.
Quite simply yes. I would so love to have been in a position where I could have gone to see the new Jule Styne show, whatever it may have been at the time.
Styne had an inordinate number of hit songs and wrote classic scores for some of the best musicals, so how do you judge a talent that produces numbers such as ‘I’ll Walk Alone’, ‘It’s Been a Long Long Time’, ‘I Fall I Love Too Easily’, ‘It’s Magic’, ‘I’ve Heard That Song Before’, ‘Just in Time’, ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry’, ‘I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, Baby’, ‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘People’, ‘The Party’s Over’, ‘Time After Time’, ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ and, of course, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ to name but a few. Is it any wonder that Styne was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the American Theatre Hall of Fame?
His catalogue of hits and the fact they have been passed down generations for years, is the best judge and recognition of why he was elected into the hall of fame. Most of those songs are in our show!
As the musical director for the Styne show, you have created some new arrangements. What do you find most satisfying about Styne’s compositions? Is his music particularly difficult to ‘get right’?
The detail in his scores, and the endless possibilities when trying to arrange it. I have loved playing with the structures of the songs, putting a song in a different style to how it may have been originally performed, and then of course arranging it chorally for our four singers. I would say, it isn’t easy to get right, but it depends how you interpret it.
You have worked on some great shows including A Little Night Music, Once Upon a Mattress, Putting It Together and Follies. Is there much difference working on these classic shows compared to, say, a new show such as Stephen Ward, Marguerite or Soho Cinders?
There is. Nine times out of ten, in a classic show, the score is the score, and it is sacred – you don’t muck around with it – you act as its guardian and bring to life exactly what the composer intended. With a new show, or certainly the ones I have worked on, they are constantly changing, on a daily basis, which is exciting but also an immense amount of work in terms of making sure you have the latest version of the score in your head. There was a song in Stephen Ward that changed its structure a number of times in previews, and I had to keep reminding myself what the latest key, or verse order was.
You were associate musical director for The Pajama Game at Chichester. Was that a particularly enjoyable experience?
Yes, I adored it. I met the most wonderful people – particularly the wonderful Gareth Valentine. I got to see and experience a first class process in putting on a show with a world class creative team. And working at Chichester is simply the best. It is a wonderful place to be, and the producers and people there are the kindest, most welcoming and supportive group there is.
You have also written your own musical, Amateur Dramatics: A Musical Comedy, which was premiered in Guildford. Is there any chance of the show coming in London and do you have any plans to write more musicals?
I would love to bring the show at least to London for a workshop performance. It would all depend on the cast but it looks like we will be doing a concert performance of it early next year in London.
What other work do you have coming up – more musical theatre orchestral concerts, perhaps?
I have a few things coming up, which I can’t say much about. Although one project I can tell you about is that I am bringing a Sondheim musical in concert to a West End theatre for one night in January with an all-star cast and 28-piece orchestra. I can’t wait.
Are there any music theatre shows, old or new, you would love to work on in the future?
I really want to conduct Follies in London one day. That would be the icing on the cake for me.
* Questions for Alex Parker were compiled by Michael Darvell
* Everything’s Coming Up Roses: The Jule Styne Songbook is at the Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, London from 2–6 September.