Songbook

My marriage play, though the word is never used. A play about love, and devotion, and singing, and all the songs we use to say those things to each other we don’t have the words to say for ourselves. Spanning a period of more than fifty years in New York City – from 1949 to approximately 2004 – it explores the lives of three remarkable men, together and apart.

In the opinion of some, beginning in the ‘20s and ending with the United States’ entry into the war at the end of ’41, New York City enjoyed an explosion of talent rivaled only by that of Renaissance Florence. Coming of age after the war, the characters of Songbook live in the afterglow of that explosion, navigating the city as they search for what is permanent in an ephemeral world. 

… ‘It was for me immensely moving for so many reasons and on so many levels. You have captured a great deal of how I feel about life and music from this vantage point of my life… I was struck by your ability to conjure or reincarnate another time, resonantly and sometimes painfully so.’

   

Michael Feinstein.

This was my last collaboration with the director Vivian Matalon before his death in 2018. During our long time together, he directed all of my work. Songbook was presented in two workshops at the York Theater on East 54th Street, where Souvenir began. When it became apparent that we would not be able to complete it, I began to adapt the story as a novel, a transformation I expected to be able to complete in a period of a few months. All these year later, a draft of the novel is complete. Under Vivian’s customarily exact, and exacting, direction I was fortunate to see the play acted by four gifted actors – when Bob Stillman was unavailable for the second workshop, the role of Sam – who must not only sing but play the piano – was played by Malcolm Gets.

The workshops.

The songs of Songbook

I’ve recently finished a reimagining of the story as a novel. Though it shares many of the same characters and incidents, it is greatly expanded in its scope; reaching from 1919 to 2010,  encompassing four generations, each telling the same story in their own way; finding and losing love as they make their own families and take their place in the world. Through it all runs a thread of music.Some quotes fom Songbook, the novel, along with some of the pictures I’ve collected over the years I’ve been working on this story.

But put them all together—all the love songs, torch songs, up-tempo numbers, specialty material, songs people dance to, make out to, make up with, break the ice with, what we played on the jukes…” you hear the interviewer chuckling, “… singing along in the car, in the shower, on the can, on the radio as you get in from work, play over dinner, last thing at night, first thing in the morning along with the news, in sickness and health, joy and despair; songs that let us believe we’re more eloquent, more loving, more worthy of respect than perhaps we are—songs made of nothing that hasn’t been said a million times; fashions change but the sentiment stays the same—how many times can you rhyme June with Moon? How many tunes can you make from the same bunch of notes you can span between your little finger and thumb?… but put them all together these songs might add up to something. Might tell the story of who we are, how we live, how it feels to be young… and how we love each other…

… there was a thing in the Times about Sam Arnott playing the first week of September at a place called Brothers and Sisters—just one block south of his apartment, though not so far west. Funny to think of their lives being in such close proximity, though not really surprising. He’d learned that the city was made up of many layers separated by money, status, age, sex—by any number of factors—each layer stacked one on top of the other like records on an automatic changer. The inhabitants of one layer might glimpse those of another—in a passing cab or hurrying down the opposite side of a street—a prosperous-looking man might stop him to ask if he had the time—but it was rare for those worlds to connect.

In the early morning, while it was still cool, he ran for miles on the hard sand of the wide deserted beaches, returning to scalding coffee in bowls and the puzzled questions of the farmer’s wife: What did he hope to find when he ran? He tried to describe the bliss that was the runner’s reward but didn’t have the words. 

Occasionally they saw tourists, English more often than not. Or locals pouring cones of salt on the wet sand to make the razor clams rise up. When the sun was high they sheltered behind rusting tank defenses. On bluffs above, ruined gun emplacements overlooked the Channel, where the wrecks of troop transports were exposed at low tide. To help them tan, as the sun bleached his hair the color of ripe wheat, Ned rubbed a mixture of olive oil and iodine into Sam’s back, taking time to anoint his thighs and buttocks, till his fragrant skin glistened like amber and honey.

When he was fourteen, a new English teacher, recently out of a Rhode Island seminary where he’d lost his faith, assigned Sam’s class an essay, fifteen hundred words to be read aloud, on the most precious object in their life—what he called their object of virtue. Because he couldn’t not, Sam chose the piano. Lovingly, he described the diospyros ebenum from Ceylon used to make the black keys; ivory from Rhodesia used to make the white; mahogany for the case; iron for frame and strings; the mechanism invented by Érard in 1823 that made possible the rapid repetition of notes and led to a new kind of playing, a new kind of music. Once such a piano is assembled, he explained, before it leaves the factory, it is ‘voiced’ to release its singing tone, finessing absolute pitch into equal temperament, allowing individual notes to blend into chords, making out of many one harmonious whole.

When he’d been homeless and wandering the city, Jimmy tried to figure out who the people were in the department stores that gave him shelter, people who seemed to be part of a civilization of which he knew nothing, of which he’d never dreamed, till he got off the bus and had his last twenty-three dollars stolen. It was the same now, he had no way to understand the well-dressed people all around him, in a room so high in the sky he wouldn’t be surprised to see a rocket ship land on the terrace outside and Buck Rogers jump out, ray-gun at the ready. Sam started to play a simple bare little tune, then he was singing about a dull routine—what dull routine?—his voice a shock, like his regular voice but more caressing and sweet, then drums kicked in and he was swinging into the tune, strong and assured, something about getting away from it all, his face in the light. People sitting at tables applauded like it was an old favorite—this was his third appearance; he was almost a regular—while Jimmy, needing to hear better, see better, see and hear it all, leaned toward the blast of warmth coming from the stage, smiling from pure pleasure. After the first song Sam moved on to others, songs Jimmy had never heard, didn’t know existed—it’s a lonely old town… I took a trip on a train… the mere idea of you—songs of love, loss, happiness, unexpected despair, unplanned bliss—I guess I’m just the kind… in this world of ordinary people, I’m glad there is you—songs so intimate, so true, it was like Sam knew better than he did how it had been for him and Tommy, when they were first alone and could barely speak, had no words to express what they felt, barely knew how to touch each other, trembling just to kiss.

On the stroke of twelve the phone rang. Then it stopped. He wasn’t sure if his host could hear, but he wished him Happy New Year. All the best for ’51; success, happiness, love; not necessarily in that order.

Not wanting to go, not yet ready to leave, and because… because it had been on his mind and because the piano was there—waiting—he sat to play some old music, one of his boyhood successes, a piece he’d recently revived to play in public. If sparsely attended, the recital went well, though not as well as he’d expected. Or deserved. Somehow he’d missed the mark. Adapted from Italian opera, the song without words was all tuneful tenderness, soft as cream, evoking summer afternoons of the last century, maybe heard through open windows, curtains moving in a breeze off shadowed lawns. A favorite of his mother’s he’d sometimes play it at her request, sighing as she kissed the top of his head. In the shabby concert hall it had mostly sounded like work. Here with this unknown man, his playing took on a glancing, melting, off-hand elegance perfectly suited to the piano’s glowing tone. Under such an enchantment it maybe wasn’t surprising the music sounded well; the room was contained, with a wooden floor and plaster walls; and if the audience was small—and maybe not conscious…

“Would you call your uncle a closeted man?” Jenn asks. 

Which surprises me: it’s nothing like she’s asked before. An award-winning producer/director, she’s here with Ryan, her writer/researcher, to talk up a proposed documentary series they’re developing for PBS. Provisionally titled A Great Unrecorded History, it will tell the story of ‘gay New York’ in the 1950s and ‘60s. A breakthrough, they tell me. For an episode on entertainers they want to feature Sam: life and legacy. We’ve been watching footage of his last set at the St. Regis on Ryan’s laptop. Shot from the back of the room the event seems kind of… what’s the word?… diminished? less than? not as I remember? There’s no frame of reference, no sense of occasion, reactions seem kind of forced and, compared to how he was in life, the Arnott charm is hard to see.

“Closeted? I don’t see how that word has meaning so far as he’s concerned. Maybe you could say guarded.” Arnie certainly did, God knows, but he was allowed. “Not because he was afraid—he wasn’t afraid of being exposed, if that’s what you mean. He was reserved by nature. It’s who he was. And why he was so surprising when he performed. He brought his style, his intelligence, with him. I mean, he didn’t smoke a pipe and date starlets, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Though, if he had to go someplace conspicuous, some public event, he would take a female friend, meeting Jimmy later, preferring a secluded table in a quiet restaurant, someplace they felt at home, to have a drink and laugh at the absurdity of it all. But that’s how they lived back then; discreet in public, candid in private. “I don’t see how you can call him ‘closeted’ when there was no such thing, no such state.” 

From a taxi surfing green lights up 8th Avenue, Sam was looking out on the streets that made up the tiny rectangle embedded at the heart of the great metropolis in which he’d lived most of his life. What Arnie jokingly called his shtetl. All excursions to other cities, other countries, were undertaken with the knowledge that he’d come back to this place in the city that made his life possible.