A sONG AT ITS HEART 'Red Hot & Blue' at Washington's National Portrait Gallery tells the long and often glamorous story of the American musical.

December 22, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Maybe you're a museum-goer in the mood for the art world's equivalent of the tired-businessman musical. Or maybe you're a tired businessman who doesn't want to shell out $50 or so to see the latest touring extravaganza. Either way, "Red, Hot & Blue" at Washington's National Portrait Gallery is just the show for you.

It's free, this "Salute to the American Musical," so you can't complain about the price of admission. It's got lots of pictures of glamorous people you've heard of all your life, from Flo Ziegfeld and Cole Porter and Gertrude Lawrence to Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and, of course, Fred and Ginger. As well as some people you might never have heard of: Tony Pastor, Nora Bayes, Joseph Urban, Florence Mills.

It's an easy show to take, broken into five logical sections outlining the history of the American musical. It begins just after the Civil War and ends with the revival of "Show Boat" that's running on Broadway right now. Each section introduces you to the main characters and, where appropriate, fills you in on what they did to advance the American musical. Aside from the pictures of the people -- sometimes expected (suave Cole Porter), sometimes surprising (was Irving Berlin really that young once?) -- there are lots of sheet music covers with their delightful and often quite sophisticated designs.

And there are the five videos, one in each section, calling to you, drawing you on with their snippets of performance: George M. Cohan rasping "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" (makes you realize how well Jimmy Cagney played him in the movie bio) and Sophie Tucker slogging through "Some of These Days." Helen Morgan singing "Bill" in her fidgety way and Al Jolson sobbing "Mammy." Fred coaxing Ginger to "Face the Music and Dance" and Ethel Merman belting out "I Got Rhythm." Gene Kelly splashing along as he croons "Singin' in the Rain" and Ezio Pinza growling "Some Enchanted Evening" in Mary Martin's ear. The gang from "Hair" doing "The Age of Aquarius" and Carol Channing prancing across that runway for the umpteen thousandth time and assuring you (as if you didn't already know it) that "Dolly'll never go away agai-ain."

So who could ask for anything more from this combined National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American History exhibit? Well, on the lighter side, you could wish for longer videos. Each one crams about eight to 12 clips into four or five minutes, for an average of something like 30 seconds a clip. So just as you're beginning to get the feel of what it was like to watch Eddie Cantor skip around the stage singing "Oh Gee Georgie," or just as Judy's glorious voice begins to bathe you in "The Trolley Song" -- poof! They're gone.

And the other side of this particular coin is that every few minutes the same snippets of the same songs roll around again. So if you spend, say, half an hour in the 1907 to 1927 section of the show, you can't avoid hearing John Steele sing "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" roughly half a dozen times, until you want to tell him to just shut up, for God's sake.

Desired objects

On the more serious side, you could wish for more three-dimensional material. There's a little bit. There's the red chair with the dragon arms owned by J. J. Shubert, who with his brother Lee formed the Shubert organization that became Ziegfeld's chief rival in the era of the great impresarios, the 1910s and 1920s. (Ziegfeld's gone, but the Shubert organization still lives.) There's a pair of shoes danced in by Fred Astaire in "Top Hat." (If memory serves me, one of the movie's dance numbers starts with a shot of his shoes -- could it be the same ones?) And a pair of Judy's red shoes from "The Wizard of Oz" (there was more than one pair), looking a bit worn, actually. And a few costumes, including Dolly's gaudy red runway-tripping number.

But we could do with more costumes and more models of stage sets, too. There's one from the "Show Boat" revival, and one from the recent revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But aren't there more out there? Have the models for all of designer Joseph Urban's sets for the "Ziegfeld Follies" gone ,, the way of Joseph Urban? And if so, is there nothing more recent, from, say, a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, or a Bernstein show?

You could wish, if you're a purist, that they had left out the movie part and concentrated exclusively on the stage part. Sure, it's great to see Judy and Mickey and Fred and Ginger and Gene and Debbie, but isn't the stage musical worth a whole show?

And as long as you're wishing, you could wish that the show at some point addressed itself directly to what constitutes the spirit of the American musical. What is it, exactly, that sets it apart from other forms of musical theater? What is the magic that enables it, at its best, to give you that grand and glorious, that laughing and weeping and clapping and foot-stomping feeling, that makes you for a little while forget everything else in the world and just soar?

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