NSO@Wolf Trap - COMPOSIN’ IN THE RAIN - Introduction to “Singin’ in the Rain” by Emil de Cou
The most famous four notes in musical history belong to Ludwig van Beethoven:
The second most famous four notes in musical history belong to Nacio Herb Brown:
Nacio Herb Brown has not quite received the acclaim of Beethoven, and when we think of Singin’ in the Rain, which we enjoy Saturday (preferably without the rain) it is Gene Kelly’s iconic splash-dance number we think of, but it is Brown’s melodic gift that inspired that iconic moment in film; four simple notes and we’re all inspired to break out the umbrella. And since NSO@Wolf Trap is as much about music as merriment, let’s hear it for the composer: from the 1920s to the 1950s Brown was among the most prolific and successful songwriters. Unlike most of his peers, who cut their teeth in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley,” Brown was born in New Mexico in 1896 and moved to Los Angeles at age five. His teenage years coincided with the birth of Hollywood as the global center of film making. Each year saw new stars, new directors, new technology, and ambitious young men and women eager to be part of the new gold rush.
Though the early years of “talkies” were good for young composers like Brown who, with his partner, lyricist Arthur Freed, wrote dozens of hits, the flame of fame proved fickle for performers: just as stars of Broadway didn’t make the cut to film (they declaimed beautifully from the stage, but their looks didn’t hold up well under bright lights and close-ups), stars of silent film didn’t make the cut to sound (they had exquisite faces that captured light and expressed emotion, but their voices betrayed their image). Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and John Gilbert didn’t make the cut. Joan Crawford and Ronald Colman did just fine. Unquestionably the biggest risk was Greta Garbo, whose mysterious allure, producers worried, might be compromised by her dusky Swedish accent. When she made her entrance in 1930 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie all of Hollywood held its collective breath. When she uttered those immortal words —“Give me a viskey. Ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” ― all of Hollywood breathed a collective sigh.
By the 1930s film musical stars emerged, such as Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, and every studio was clamoring for songs, mostly for review-type films that featured Broadway melodies alongside fresh material and specialty numbers. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed flourished in these years, with elegant songs that found popular success, despite the fact that many of the films in which their songs were featured were short on plot and substance.
Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952, is a remarkable tribute to the last days of silent films and the early days of talkies and musicals. It’s also an amazing tribute to Brown and Freed. Despite his success as a lyricist, Freed went on to far greater success as a producer of musicals at MGM. For Singin’ in the Rain he reached into the trunk-load of songs he and Brown had previously written for other films and, with the talents of screenwriters (and well-known lyricists) Betty Comden and Adolph Green, turned the sad tales of silents-to-sounds into serious fun. Unlike 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a noir classic in which a faded silent star becomes a grotesque recluse, or 2011’s The Artist, a modern-day silent in which a great silent star falls on hard times, Singin’ in the Rain follows a zany trio of actors who, with pluck, hijinks, and enormous talent, make the cut by turning tragedy into comedy. Co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly magnified the magic with choreography that at times seems to defy the laws of physics and furniture.
Singin in the Rain credit Emily Zoladz Copyright 2008 The Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission
Strangely enough, Singin’ in the Rain was not a hit when it was released. Its performance at the box office was mediocre, and it was nominated for few awards. (The big hit that year was The Greatest Show on Earth, a blockbuster from director Cecil B. DeMille, who definitely made the cut from silents to talkies!) Like many classic films it took decades to receive critical recognition and popular acclaim. And that popularity refuses to wane: Gene Kelly’s iconic dancing routine has been parodied in everything from the film Wall-E to the television show Glee. Debbie Reynolds sang a snippet of “Good Morning!” on Will & Grace. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, known for his sober, moving performances in film, brilliantly recreated Donald O’Connor’s Make’em Laugh routine when he hosted Saturday Night Live last year.
Of course, no classic film musical is ever fully anointed until it makes its NSO@Wolf Trap premiere with live orchestra. We hope for glorious weather Saturday, but we do hope you brought your umbrellas. Should it rain we expect no less than for everyone to sing and dance!
─ Emil de Cou,
NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor