When the composers who penned the tunes for what’s become known as the Great American Songbook are mentioned, the name of Harold Arlen is too often ignored. For Broadway and Hollywood, he composed over 400 songs, a shade less than 40 of which were recalled at the Carnegie Hall celebration on the eve of his centennial. Yet despite an impressive array of cabaret, theater and jazz artists, Arlen’s work got short shrift in a mechanically mannered concert marked by a decided lack of passion and inspiration. The performers skimmed the surface, locking in on Arlen’s better-known songs.
Faith Prince and Tom Wopat opened the festivities with a playful invitation, “Let’s Fall in Love.” Prince, a distinguished Broadway diva, provided a shrill and strident take on “The Man That Got Away” that was shamefully rushed, lacking nuance and its vital strain of heartbreak.
The evening’s shining moment was an appearance late in the program by Ann Hampton Callaway, who sang a pair of Arlen-Johnny Mercer gems, “My Shining Hour” and “Blues in the Night.” Callaway noted that Arlen’s gift for blues was rooted in his father’s cantorial singing. She really revealed the rapture and the torchy grandeur of the Arlen-Mercer collaborations.
Loston Harris, a fixture at Bemelmens Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, offered a lightly swinging take on “It’s Only a Paper Moon” that recalled the classic turn rendered by the Nat King Cole trio in the 1940s.
Cabaret crooner Eric Comstock — the concert’s artistic director — performed the breezy flight of “The Eagle and Me” and introduced his bride of six months, Barbara Fasano, who sang “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” the plaintive Arlen-Truman Capote farewell from “House of Flowers.” Fasano displayed sweet restraint.
Lea DeLaria’s jazz-flavored “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” went over the top and was accented by a soaring scat vocal and a scorching sax interlude by Red Holloway. John Pizzarelli’s smooth spin on “That Old Black Magic” and a plaintive solo for “Right Is the Rain” boasted a clean, subtle edge. (Pizzarelli’s wife, Jessica Molaskey, was scheduled to sing the latter but was forced to cancel due to a severe case of laryngitis.)
“Come Rain or Come Shine” served as a sultry weather report for a glamorous Simone. But a bad case of caterwauling marred Barbara Morrison’s blowsy version of “Ill Wind.” The gray skies of Ted Koehler’s lyrics became far too bright.
Gotham broadcaster and historian Jonathan Schwartz hosted the gala, noting the composer’s droll and melancholy persona.
Judy Garland’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow,” for which Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg won an Oscar, did not receive its due, done in a vocal quartet of Wopat, Prince, Harris and Morrison. Its assuring promise of “dreams you dare to dream” really did not come true.
The buried gold of Arlen’s rich legacy has yet to be fully realized.