Songs of September

September, rainSeptember sees the beginning of the harvest of nature’s abundance, but then the fields stop growing.

It displays flamboyant color, as the leaves turn from uniform green to variegated reds, oranges, and yellows. But then autumn turns a dull brown.

Relief from the heat of summer invigorates for a while, but gives way to melancholy.

September melancholy has inspired some wonderful songs.

September Song

One of the greatest songs in Broadway history, “September Song” was composed by German-born Kurt Weill, with words by Maxwell Anderson. Weill had enjoyed great success in Germany as an opera composer. In fact, another favorite song, known to us as “Mack the Knife,” comes from one of those operas.

After Hitler came to power, Weill and other Jewish composers fled the country. Not long after he moved to the US, he became friends with Anderson, one of the greatest American playwrights of his generation.

Anderson suggested collaborating on a musical based on a comic novel by Washington Irving, which became Knickerbocker Holiday. It premiered in 1938 and is set in colonial times, when Peter Stuyvesant governed New Amsterdam.

Stuyvesant, as an old man, proposes to a woman young enough to be his daughter. She asks him to wait a few years. “September Song” expresses his heartbreak.

Director Joshua Logan asked Walter Huston, a star both on Broadway and Hollywood, to play the part of Stuyvesant. Huston disliked the character, but agreed to portray him, “if I have one chance to be charming and I can make love to the young girl. Not win her, just give her a squeeze or a tickle under the chin, and she could even consider him for a fraction of a second when she hears his song.”

Neither Anderson nor Weill had said anything to Logan about a song, but when he conveyed Huston’s condition, they had to write one whether they had originally planned one or not.

Weill phoned Huston to ask about the range of his voice. Huston famously replied that he had no range and no voice, but he was scheduled to sing on the radio that night and suggested that Weill listen. Anderson wrote words the next morning, and Weill composed the song that afternoon.

Huston wanted to hear the song, over the phone if necessary. He couldn’t understand Weill’s accent, but after Logan sang the song twice, Huston sang it back with perfect accuracy. Many better singers have recorded it, but there’s something in Huston’s voice that no one else can capture.

September in the Rain

“September in the Rain” is one of many collaborations between lyricist Al Dubin and composer Harry Warren, one of the first songwriters who worked mostly in films. Usually, Warren would compose music and Dubin would fit words to it.

Warren and Dubin tell somewhat different stories about “September in the Rain,” but they both agree that Dubin proposed the title before any other work started. They intended the song for Stars over Broadway, a movie starring James Melton, in 1935. But by the final edits, only an instrumental version of the tune remained. It served as background for several scenes.

Two years later, when Dubin’s life was beginning a downward spiral, they brought it out for another James Melton film, Melody for Two. “September in the Rain” turned out to be the last hit by Dubin and Warren.

The song contains the line, “Though spring is here, to me it’s still September.” A particular September, marked by the pain of lost love.

Many singers have eclipsed Melton’s version. Here’s Jo Stafford.

Try to Remember

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, two unknown Korean War veterans, struggled to make a musical based on Edmond Rostand’s spoof of Romeo and Juliet. Rogers and Hammerstein dominated Broadway at the time, and the two spent years trying to make their project into another Rogers and Hammerstein blockbuster. It didn’t work.

By 1959, they were still unknown, but a director they had known in college, asked for a one-act version of the musical. He needed it in three weeks. Jones and Schmidt discarded everything but one song and started fresh. Eventually, they expanded it to two acts and had it produced off Broadway.

By that time, they called the musical The Fantasticks. It became the longest running musical play in history. And the song? “Try to Remember.”

In outline, The Fantasticks shows its origin with the Shakespeare masterpiece. Two young lovers struggle against the quarrel between their fathers, except this time the fathers only pretend to quarrel in order to goad their strong-willed children into romance.

The play begins with El Gallo singing “Try to remember the time in September when life was slow, and oh so mellow.” Schmidt had composed it quickly and loved it from the start. Jones’ words do not introduce any of the characters or the plot, but they set the mood and philosophy of the whole story: “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” Maturity comes only through being roughed up by life.

Jerry Orbach created the role of El Gallo in 1960. Since then, many other singers have recorded it. Here’s Julie Andrews:

America’s Songs / by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser. (Routledge, 2006)
September in the Rain / Great American Song Book

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