Married more than 40 years and making music together for over 43, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris and composer and pianist William Bolcom have released a new CD, “Autumn Leaves,” on Central Michigan University School of Music label White Pine Music, a treasure trove of classics from film, theater, and cabaret, the familiar and the rare, associated with stars from Ethel Merman to Ethel Waters, which Morris and Bolcom make their own.
Beside their gently sentimental title track, Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert’s “Autumn Leaves” (“Les feuilles mortes”), from the 1950s, with verse translated by Bolcom and chorus, by Johnny Mercer, music of the Depression era dominates the first part of Morris and Bolcom’s program of favorites. Their “About a Quarter to Nine,” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, first sung by Al Jolson, is lush, romantic, and full of anticipation. In Lew Brown and Ray Henderson’s “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” which Merman introduced in “George White’s Scandals of 1931,” Morris and Bolcom consider facing adversity in the relatively unfamiliar questioning verse and the sunnily optimistic chorus. Their Waters number, “Am I Blue,” by Harry Akst and Grant Clarke, makes for an affecting torch song.
In Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “Swinging on a Star,” sung by Bing Crosby as Father Charles O’Malley in “Going My Way,” Morris and Bolcom breezily urge, ‘go to school, you fool’ or “you may grow up to be” no better than a mule, a pig, a fish, or a monkey. Of more recent vintage are “Minicabs,” mini-cabaret songs, a series of sagely terse and endearing one-liners by late poet Arnold Weinstein, Morris and Bolcom’s frequent colleague and collaborator, set by Bolcom. Italian, French, Mexican, and Jewish food are concisely characterized, but a personal favorite deliciously declares, “I will never forgive you … for my behavior!,” which ranks with, “I’m sorry you were so wrong,” an oft-repeated ‘apology’ in my own circles.
Morris and Bolcom make a three-act opera out of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Surabaya Johnny,” from “Happy End,” as translated by Michael Feingold, limning a compelling figure inspiring anger (“you rat!”) and sadness, as much as love. Feingold also translated Yvette Guilbert and Paul de Kock’s sprightly “Madame Arthur,” where Morris relishes depicting the much-gossiped-about prodigious lover, boasting a certain risqué je ne sais quoi. In Sam Coslow, Sammy Fain, and Irving Kahal’s “Now I’m a Lady,” Mae West’s song, Morris portrays a performer gleefully turning over a new leaf now that her fortune has improved, her decorous new persona cheerfully undercut by her iconic invitation, “Come up and see me sometime.” Another figure, and a full figure at that, in Morris and Bolcom’s gallery of proudly transgressive women is Sophie Tucker, cheerfully rejecting dieting as she asserts, in Milton Ager and Jack Yellen’s number, “I Don’t Want to Get Thin”—doesn’t seem to do her love life any harm! Noel Coward’s on deck as Morris limns a new widow reveling in a “jolly day ... a holiday” as a sophisticated denizen of a louche “Bar on the Piccola Marina”—quelle scandale!
Representing Ruth Etting’s repertoire are Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk’s “Mean to Me,” more light and lilting than heavily torchy, and sad, but understated “A Cottage for Sale”—alas, a love nest no more—by Willard Robison and Larry Conley. Morris frankly faces that passion is ending and a breakup is coming in Kay Swift and James “Paul James” Warburg’s “Can’t We Be Friends,” a Libby Holman number, but tears lurk just beneath the surface.
Singer and pianist return to Kosma and Prévert with a strange and simple “Dans ma maison,” in Bolcom’s translation, as “In My House”—Morris’ character variously contemplates feet, robins, clams, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as she perhaps awaits a lover. Our mezzo sweetly sings of the intimacy of a beloved hometown in Bob Merrill’s “Mira,” from “Carnival,” first sung by Anna Maria Alberghetti and later Mabel Mercer’s signature song. In Enrique Santos Discépolo’s torrid “El Camabalache,” the musical couple of the hour airily explores our topsy-turvy, sleazy world and, in Bolcom’s updated translation, jibes at the likes of Bernie Madoff, George W. Bush, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Danielle Steel.
Morris and Bolcom take up Hoagy Carmichael’s rollicking “Hong Kong Blues,” which he sang in the film based on Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” craving an end-of-life return, not to hometown Memphis, but to San Francisco, where he apparently left his heart.
Heavens to Blossom Dearie, but “we are not amused”—the song itself says so—by the late John Wallowitch’s unfortunate, old, old, pre-Stonewall-style “Bruce,” who’s too gay even for me, and whose dress is a mess. On the other hand, there’s Morris and Bolcom’s terrific rendition of Wallowitch’s Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-meet-Weill-and-Brecht, girls-in-white-dresses-board-Pirate Jenny’s-Black-Freighter “Three Penny Things.” “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Cast Lotte Lenya in the part. Herman Hupfield’s “As Time Goes By,” famously sung by Dooley Wilson in “Casablanca,” makes for a good place to end this musical journey.
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