Today’s song is brought to you by New York City. I’ve been here for over a week in December, and I haven’t seen my breath once. Check out the high from today. That’s 70, people. Se-ven-ty. That’s virtually flip-flop weather. I didn’t even bother with my jacket. So it reminded me of that scene in the 1954 film White Christmas where they’re on the train to Vermont, all excited to finally see some snow, and they sing about it in this lovely, harmony-thick song titled, quite simply, “Snow.” Then the train arrives, and it’s as sunny as the Serengeti … in a Vermont sorta way. This is what I’ve been thinking of the past week; NYC may have to be content with dreaming of a white Christmas this year.
A little about this song: It wasn’t called “Snow” in its first version. It was called “Free,” and it wasn’t about snow at all. Instead, it was from a 1950 musical by Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam. The musical satirized United States aid to needy countries. I’m not clear on why in post-WWII devastation, helping the needy is something to be satirized. Anyway, the lead character played by Ethel Merman was modeled on the Washington, D. C. hostess and Democratic party fundraiser, Perle Mesta, who had been made the U. S. ambassador to Luxembourg the year before. Mesta was known as the “hostess with the mostes,” and I’m not even making that up. That nickname got lifted from real life right into the opening number. Here you can see both Ethel and Perle.
Other theater heavyweights involved in the production were Hal Prince as casting director who has won 21 Tony awards, more than any other individual, and Jerome Robbins, who choreographed, among other things, West Side Story. Years ago in Chicago I was in the audience as Stephen Sondheim chatted about West Side Story as well as other productions. He called Jerome Robbins a genius (but not Leonard Bernstein, who had his breakout debut conducting the New York Philharmonic at age 25). Sondheim said, “I don’t just throw that term around, but he [Jerome Robbins] really was a genius.” So the talent pool for Call Me Madam included Ethel Merman, Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins, and, of course, lyrics and music by Irving Berlin. It premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on 45th St. where Merman had delighted audiences four years earlier in Annie, Get Your Gun. The current show there now, 65 years later, is the revival of Les Misérables.
The musical Call Me Madam won four Tony awards, but the little ditty “Free” never made it past out-of-town tryouts. Instead, some of the lyrics were changed to take it from political satire musical to Hollywood Christmas special, and lo, and behold, four years later it became “Snow.” I remember being captivated by these charismatic, beautiful screen personalities the first time I saw this scene in the film, White Christmas. Their solos and tight chords wove in and out of each other as they listed off how they intended to enjoy the snow, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to sing like that with your friends?”