For most of us, the music of the prolific Buffalo-born composer Harold Arlen seems to float into our minds without us even recognizing it.
That was the way it happened for Marcus Goldhaber, the Buffalo-born singer and songwriter starring in the new off-Broadway musical “The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen.” The show opens Thursday in St. Luke’s Theatre in New York City after a month of previews.
Some of Goldhaber’s earliest memories include his mother or grandfather playing after-dinner renditions of Arlen’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Stormy Weather” on the family piano. But unlike casual fans who can happily hum the melody to “Over the Rainbow” without the foggiest idea of its composer, Goldhaber learned early on who wrote those comforting, postprandial tunes. And they left an indelible impression.
Eventually, after graduating from Fredonia State College with a degree in musical theater, he folded the legendary composer’s eclectic songwriting style into his own.
“It was inspiring, especially when I started writing songs myself, to study his writing style and [see] how it was always a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right of what everyone else was doing. He wrote very standard-form tunes like ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ and ‘Paper Moon,’ but he also wrote songs like ‘Ill Wind’ and ‘Last Night When We Were Young,’ that [have] more odd chromatic intervals,” he said in a phone interview from New York City. “I really felt like, if Harold Arlen can do this, I joked with someone, why, oh why, can’t I?”
Though he is not a household name, Arlen is responsible for many of the tunes Americans seem to know innately. There’s “Over the Rainbow” and the rest of the exuberant tunes from Arlen’s collaboration with lyricist Yip Harburg on “The Wizard of Oz.” There are standards like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” and dozens of other instantly recognizable melodies. And then there are the beautifully off-center pieces like “Stormy Weather” and “That Old Black Magic,” which distinguished Arlen from his pals and frequent collaborators like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Song,” a biographical take on Arlen’s life and songwriting career, was co-created by the composer’s son Sam Arlen and producer George Bugatti, who also performs in the show. It had a long period of development on the West Coast, where it was frequently performed with a 17-piece orchestra playing new arrangements of Arlen’s songs. The off-Broadway version has been reconceived with a smaller cast, headed by a fictional trio known as the Three Crooners – Goldhaber, Bugatti and Joe Shepherd.
“It’s scaled down for a jazz trio and so it’s very intimate and swingin’,” Goldhaber said. “It’s that type of real intimate thing where there’s no fourth wall, you’re with the audience the whole time.”
Like the 2007 MusicalFare Theater production “A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story,” the show intersperses key moments from Arlen’s life – such as meetings with singers Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters and collaborators like Johnny Mercer – with performances of many popular and some little-known tunes. It also includes rare archival material, including film shot by Arlen himself during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” along with projections of family pictures and other ephemera provided by Sam Arlen. (Arlen was born in 1905 and died in 1986.)
“By the end of it, I think you really get to know who Harold was. Buffalo is a highlight of course,” Goldhaber said, adding that he’s been receiving notes from Buffalonians about Arlen and his legacy.
“Someone emailed me a picture because their grandfather played with Harold Arlen in the Southbound Shufflers, which was his first band that he formed in Buffalo before he created the Buffalodians. It’s a real nice trip down memory lane and history lane.”
After the show completes its run in New York, Goldhaber said, the plan is to take it on the road – hopefully with a stop in Buffalo. And that, he suggested, may help to reacquaint audiences with a composer whose work they already know and love.
“Arlen was hanging out with the Gershwins – and if you look around, they all admired him, they all looked to him and said, ‘That’s a sophisticated writer,’ ” Goldhaber said. “Maybe it’s only a matter of time before we can get him the recognition he deserves.”