Melody Courage, soprano; Evan Korbut, baritone; Gordon Gerrard, piano
April 6, 2023 | 1.30 pm | Walter Hall, U of T
Tuning Your Mind | 12.15 | Walter Hall, U of T
Music historian Robin Elliott
“Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, 1950 and the WMCT’s third 25 years
WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives
For this special season, WMCT artistic director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series that constitutes a reflection upon the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. To accomplish all of this within just five concerts, he has divided that 125-year span into five 25-year blocks. As 25 years is the length of a generation, Simon had the additional creative idea of including, in each concert, musicians who are in a mentor/mentee relationship, thus reflecting the past, present and future of the invited guest artists, as well as of the WMCT itself. For each concert, an anchor work is drawn from one of the five 25-year blocks of time, which provides an opportunity to reflect upon that period in WMCT and world history. Here is some historical background on the third period.
Concert 4: Marion Newman & Friends, April 6, 2023
Anchor work: “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, 1950
There is a tendency to paint the 1950s retrospectively as a grim time of repression and conformity, and the 1960s as an idyllic era of new ideas and big dreams, whether induced by pharmaceuticals or natural means. McCarthyism with polyester suits and ties on the one side, the Great Society with tie-dye T-shirts and love beads on the other. The reality was more nuanced and complicated. The 1950s also brought us rock and roll, economic prosperity, television, and the baby boom. The 1960s saw civil disobedience, race riots, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. There was plenty of good and bad to fill up each decade. Both were defined by a proxy war between Communism and the West fought in Asia: the Korean War in the early 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s; the former was much shorter, but millions died in each conflict. It is no coincidence that these points of reference mainly concern the USA; the country reached the apex of its cultural and geopolitical power during this period. “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world,” as Winston Churchill said in 1945. The country’s technological progress and adventurous spirit was on display for the entire world to see on the occasion of the moon landing in July 1969, a moment witnessed by over 500 million around the world when it was broadcast live on television.
Here in Canada, post-war recovery during the 1950s and 1960s saw significant growth in the population and the economy. In Toronto, a long, unbroken string of mayors supplied by the Orange Order was finally broken in 1955 by Nathan Phillips, a Jewish lawyer and politician who pointedly was styled “the mayor of all the people.” It is perhaps not overstating the case to say that the election of Phillips marked the beginning of Toronto’s transition from a bigger, duller version of Belfast to a smaller, friendlier version of New York City. The population of the city reached a million and a half by the time of the 1961 census; Canada reached 20 million in 1966. “One little, two little, three Canadians … now we are 20 million,” as Bobby Gimby’s Centennial song “Ca-na-da” put it.
A new sense of civic pride in Toronto was captured in concrete terms by the new City Hall building, completed in 1965. The Centennial year 1967 saw a wealth of building projects and cultural activity from coast to coast, with new concert halls (in Banff, Brandon, Corner Brook, Kelowna, London, Ottawa, St. John’s, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg), festivals, compositions, parades, and so on, not to mention the incredible cultural smorgasbord that was Expo 67 in Montreal. It may not have been, as Pierre Berton put it, The Last Good Year, but it was certainly a great time for music and the arts in Canada. (Come to think of it, 1967 was actually the last good year for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, but perhaps not for the rest of us.)
The 1960s were an exciting time for music in Toronto as well. The decade got off to an auspicious start: the O’Keefe Centre (now called Meridian Hall) opened on 1 October 1960 with the world premiere of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. The cavernous 3200-seat theatre became home to both the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and has seen visits from a host of international star entertainers and touring productions.
[Maclean’s magazine reported on the premiere of Camelot at the O’Keefe Centre. The show ran for four and a half hours on opening night; “Parsifal without the jokes” was Noël Coward’s caustic observation.]
Memorable COC productions during these years included the premiere of the Harry Somers / Mavor Moore opera Louis Riel in 1967 and three-quarters of a Wagner Ring cycle in the early 1970s (Das Rheingold was not done). The Toronto Symphony flourished under the leadership of the charismatic young Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, whose presence in Toronto later inspired two novels (Almost Japanese by Sarah Sheard and A Certain Mr. Takahashi by Ann Ireland). The Edward Johnson Building (EJB) officially opened in March 1964, with the 815-seat MacMillan Theatre and the 490-seat Walter Hall (home to WMCT concerts starting in 1985). The unofficial opening of the EJB had occurred two years earlier, with the inaugural concert of Ten Centuries Concerts, whose adventurous and wide-ranging musical activities from 1962 to 1967 were recalled in an article by John Beckwith for the WMCT News & Notes in 2006 (republished in Beckwith’s recent book Music Annals). Meanwhile the Yorkville coffee house scene in the 1960s would help to spawn a generation of Canadian singer-songwriters, including Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Neil Young.
The WMCT flourished during these years, offering a glittering series of concerts in Eaton Auditorium that were consistently well attended and presented both established stars (the Beaux Arts Trio, Glenn Gould, the Juilliard and Guarneri quartets, Jean Pierre Rampal) and up-and-coming artists making their local debut (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Maureen Forrester, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price). The club marked its 75th season with a gala concert in October 1972 and the publication of the first history of the club, Look Back in Pride (1972) by former WMCT president Helen Goudge.
An epochal change occurred in 1958 when the WMCT decided to allow men to become members for the first time in the club’s history. Numbers subsequently grew to the highest levels ever (1,000 members in 1964), and the WMCT concert series became one of the hottest tickets in the increasingly crowded Toronto concert scene. WMCT finances were in sufficiently sound shape that annual scholarships to talented music students, introduced in 1950, increased from one to three a year beginning with the 1966–67 season. Another major change in 1969 saw the WMCT become a registered charity, which allowed it to raise funds through charitable donations rather than relying solely on membership fees. And on a practical note, in 1970 the concert time was moved back from 2:00 pm to 1:30 pm to avoid the afternoon rush hour; it has remained at that time ever since.
The anchor work for this 25-year period is the hit song “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat” from the musical comedy Guys and Dolls, with words and music by Frank Loesser, based on the short stories of Damon Runyon. The show opened on Broadway in November 1950, was hailed as an artistic triumph, and went on to win the Tony Award for best musical that year, winning out over the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit The King and I. A film version starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra was released in 1955; a long-delayed remake of the film is said to be currently under consideration. The Broadway comic actor Stubby Kaye in the role of the gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson sang “Sit down” in both the Broadway and Hollywood film productions of the show. This anchor piece reflects the unstoppable rise of pop culture during this period. The pandemonium which accompanied the local appearances of Elvis Presley at Maple Leaf Gardens in April 1957 and of The Beatles at the same venue in 1964, 1965, and 1966 attests to the extraordinary power that popular music of the day had on the lives and imaginations of the young. Pop repertoire has understandably been largely absent from WMCT programs over the years; the April 2023 performance by Marion Newman will mark the first hearing of music by Frank Loesser at a WMCT recital.