By Nicole Hennessy
Mary Lou Bollak sings along … well, mouths along, anyway. She’s not really one for singing in public. She sits alone in the second row; the first is devoid of people.
Along with Bollak, about 50 attendees fill a backroom in the Westlake Porter Public Library March 20, listening and singing softly as Bill Rudman plays portions of recordings.
Rudman, who since 1983 has written and hosted a radio show on Broadway and Hollywood music — “Footlight Parade” — says the musical, an American tradition, is more than just entertainment
“All I Know About Life, I Learned From Music,” the lecture he’s giving is called.
“Actually, the title of this program is ‘Everything I Know About Life, I Learned From Musicals’ – not music, musicals,” Rudman clarifies, emphasizing the word “musicals.”
He continues, “Musical theater, though it may sound pretentious, is an art form. It’s. An. Art form.” Then quoting the writer and lyricist Yip Harburg, he adds, a song makes you feel a thought.
“So,” says Rudman, “in our time today, we’re gonna feel some thoughts. That’s what we’re gonna do. And we’re gonna see what musicals can tell us about our country and ourselves, and even about life in general.”
Love, sex and dreams of utopia
“Ninety-five percent of popular songs, in any era, are written about love,” Rudman says, addressing the lecture’s first topic.
Love can be a very outward emotion, and, in musicals, songs help tell stories and reveal the behavior of characters developing on a stage or a screen; thus they must avoid cliche, as each character is unique.
Having explained this, Rudman presses the “Play” button on the small boom box beside him, and Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” begins. After stopping the love song, he says, “Irving Berlin did not write ‘What will I do?’ he wrote ‘What’ll I do?’ And that makes all the difference in bringing a character to life, says Rudman, “There’s almost a shrug of the shoulders built into it.”
“What’ll I do?” he asks once more, shrugging.
He continues playing clips and understanding meaning, engaging the audience, intently listening.
Rudman’s energized and confident radio-friendly voice fills the room with or without microphone use. He intends to spend less time on each subsequent topic after love, but after all, how can you skip that of sex? On this theme, he spends just a few minutes.
“Here’s a piece of a song written by Yip Harburg and Burton Lane,” he explains. “The waltz melody makes you dizzy, and that’s exactly what the writers want you to feel.”
With that, the song “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” plays, during which Rudman moves his head from side to side and taps his feet. Then the song stops, and he moves on to topic three — dreams of utopia.
“In other words, dreams of a perfect society,” Rudman clarifies again. This theme is common in musicals, he says, which is not surprising because “our country was founded on a utopian dream: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”
In terms of this theme, the audience is asked to consider the significance of the fact that John and Jackie Kennedy used to listen to the Broadway cast album of “Camelot” in the White House before going to bed at night, “because John Kennedy had a dream of a utopia that really had a parallel in King Arthur’s dream of the Round Table.”
A few weeks after 9/11, Rudman did a whole show about patriotic songs from musicals.
“I included ‘God Bless America’ by Irving Berlin,” he remembers, “because Berlin wrote that song during World War I for a Broadway revue.” People often forget that.
On the subject of this song, he reads a commentary written by Berlin’s daughter.
“One day I heard my father sing ‘God Bless America.’ No other singer, not even Kate Smith or any of the opera singers who performed it on state occasions, none of them gave it quite that conviction.”
Rudman presses “Play.” The recording cracks with age, a long-ago audience erupts into applause and the familiar song sounds delightfully different, a pianist playing behind the lyrics. After it ends, the library audience claps.
“That’s an extraordinary recording,” Rudman says. “Absolutely extraordinary.”
America’s social conscience, aging and death
Two examples of social conscience Rudman addresses are that of racism and economic injustice.
Using the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which was written in 1932 during the Great Depression, to get his point across, Rudman considers its numerous rerecordings.
“The extraordinary thing about this song is that it’s been recorded, literally, every decade since the 1930s. Every new generation finds things in it,” Rudman says. Most recently, it was recorded by Tom Waits.
“It’s a universal statement, and I think the statement hits hard, especially these days when the gap between the rich and poor, as we know, continues to widen. Here’s some lines that lead into what I’m going to play for you.
“They used to tell me I was building a dream with peace and glory ahead. Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread? Once, I built a tower to the sun, brick and rivet and lime. Once, I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?”
After a snipet of a recording of Tommy Hollis singing th0se lines, Rudman quickly moves through Topics Six and Seven — aging and death — finally arriving at the final theme.
Philosophies of life
When his sister got married, Rudman says, he read a passage from Voltaire’s “Candide” at her wedding.
The lines were from a song he’s preparing to play – “Make Our Garden Grow” – which is inspired by a line from “Candide.” “We must cultivate our garden,” he explains. Then he reads,
“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please. Those Edens can’t be found. The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees, are grown in solid ground. We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good. We’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood, and make our garden grow.”
Part of listening
Bollak doesn’t move at first. She sits there, smiling.
A lifelong fan of musicals, she’s met Rudman before. In fact, she attends most of his talks and engagements.
Friends from various stages in her life say “hi” before leaving, having not previously noticed her as she snuck in just as the lecture was beginning.
“His knowledge,” she says simply, is her favorite part of listening to Rudman speak, live or otherwise.
Heading home to Fairview Park, she gathers her things, Rudman still standing by the podium, talking to people who clearly know him.
“Good to see you,” he says, shaking hands, more and more people crowding around him.