American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center: Eric Comstock Salutes Charles Strouse
"This Is the Life: Salute to Charles Strouse at 80": American Songbook Series
The Allen Room at Lincoln Center, New York City
February 6, 2008
Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series offered an eclectic choice of artists this year: Americana rocker Joe Henry with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, iconic rock singer/songwriter Patti Smith, veteran Memphis R&B singer Bettye Lavette, The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek), and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. But the standout occurred on the evening of February 6th in The Allen Room, when pianist/vocalist Eric Comstock presented his tribute to Broadway composer Charles Strouse: "This is the Life: Eric Comstock Salutes Charles Strouse @ 80."
Mr. Comstock's ensemble consisted of his wife, Barbara Fasanoherself a gifted performer of the American Songbookalong with musicians Harry Allen, tenor sax; Peter Washington, bass; Vito Lesczak, drums; and Charles Strouse himself. Unquestionably, this musical tribute was the real deal and, in the words of legendary songwriters Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, "...a show that is really a show." Comstock is one of New York's most gifted and charming entertainers, a performer who sports an encyclopedic, yet never snobbish, knowledge of the singers and songwriters of the American Songbook.
Strouse and his early partner, lyricist Lee Adams, struck gold with their score for Bye Bye Birdie in 1960, arguably the first "rock 'n' roll" musical comedy. Strouse continued working with Adams as well as with lyricists Martin Charnin, Alan Jay Lerner and Richard Maltby, Jr. to craft such latter-day, long-running Broadway musicals as Golden Boy; It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman; Applause; and Annie.
Comstock made a strong case for the jazz elements in Strouse's work, beginning with upbeat readings of songs illustrating the power of positive thinking"Put On A Happy Face" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile." These up-tempo crowd-pleasers were immediately followed by ballads of yearning like "Night Song" and "Maybe."
To this point, there had been no spoken words from Comstockonly a sampling of the music that lay ahead. The music, regardless of tempo, was performed infectiously by a combo featuring striking solo work and complementary obligatos from Harry Allen's tenor sax. It did not take long for Strouse's music to jog listeners' memories: "Think How It's Gonna Be" from Applause (1970), which on the Broadway stage was sung to Lauren Bacall by Len Cariou; the largely overlooked "There's Always One You Can't Forget" from Dance A Little Closer (1983) with a lyric by Alan Jay Lerner. For this tune, Comstock left the keyboard to sing accompanied only by Peter Washington's bass. Another obscure Strouse beauty, "Is There Anything Better than Dancing?" from Nick & Nora, sparkled with both its lovely melody and moving Maltby lyric.
Eventually Comstock got around to talking, relating Strouse's adventures on the failed musical All American, which was co-written by a promising up and comer named Mel Brooks. As is true of countless numbers of forgotten musicals, the show yielded a well-remembered hit song"Once Upon A Time," which was popularized by Tony Bennett before becoming a standard. Comstock delivered it with no more than his own piano accompaniment. The performer noted that Bennett's earlier recording of Bye Bye Birdie's "Put On A Happy Face" was the first to introduce a Yiddish-ism to the American public when, at the song's end, the ageless crooner exclaimed "Smile, bubbie, it's your birthday!" Similarly, the ballad "I've Just Seen Her" was prefaced by Comstock with the tale of a college boy's experience with voyeurism.
From It's A Bird..It's A Plane..It's Superman Comstock took two memorable numbers"You've Got Possibilities," originally sung by Linda Lavin, and the outrageous Jack Cassidy vehicle, "The Woman for the Man Who Has Everything." Having seen the original show, we are happy to report that Comstock nailed both.
The heart of the evening was a prolonged appreciation of Golden Boy, Comstock's favorite score. The spotlight shifted from Comstock to Barbara Fasano, who winningly performed the exquisite but hardly remembered title song as well as a Billy Daniels' tour de force from the 1965 musical, "While the City Sleeps," which featured a very strong Stan Getz-ian solo by Harry Allen. Comstock then performed the love song that Sammy Davis, Jr. sang, "I Want To Be With You." Next, Fasano moved to the crook of the piano to sing "Lorna's Here," a ballad of reassurance in the original show, directly to Comstock. The room became very still as Fasano returned to center stage to finish the dramatic song. This was indeed a moment that transcended the usual concertizing, a moment that allowed the audience to be transported back in time to experience the chemistry between Sammy Davis and his leading lady, Paula Wayne, in the original Broadway production. Comstock and Fasano succeeded in revitalizing this scene with their ardor for the music and their own chemistry as a couple.
The guest of honor, Charles Strouse, then approached the piano. In a comfortable series of anecdotes, he related his beginnings as a jazz musician and other tales of New York. Then he played and sang his popular opening theme for Norman Lear's 1970s blockbuster sitcom that changed television history, All in the Family ("...Boy, the way Glenn Miller played ..."), even duplicating Jean Stapleton's (Edith Bunker's) "screech" note. He concluded with his anthem from Annie, the enormously popular "Tomorrow," to a standing ovation.
This grand finale might have left all the customers satisfied, but Comstock cleverly constructed the program to include a closing tribute to Manhattan. From A Broadway Musical came a humorous look at the world of reviews in the "Smashing, New York Times." Comstock's ultimate closer, Annie's celebratory "N.Y.C.," was accompanied by the traffic of Columbus Circle and the lights of New York seen through the massive windows of the Allen Room. Together with the performer's stirring rendition of the song, the evening was brought to a dream-like conclusion.