Broadway Veteran Susan Watson Tells a Story in Song on Her CD

If we can be the best of lovers

Yet be the best of friends,

If we can try with every day to make it better as it grows,

With any luck then I suppose,

The music never ends.

– From “How Do We Keep the Music Playing?”

Melodies have always played a particularly important part in Broadway actor and singer Susan Watson’s life.

“For me, songs are the best way of expressing love and bringing people together to celebrate life,” Watson says. “Now, with my five decades on the stage, I’m so glad I’m still able to light up life for audiences – and for myself – through song.”

The native of Tulsa is perhaps best known for creating the role of the star-struck bobby-soxer Kim MacAfee in the landmark 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. (Gay iconoclast and comedian Paul Lynde played her high-strung and harried father, a break-out role for him.) Her many starring roles over the years include the female lead in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette. Playing Emily Whitman in the 2011 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies was her most recent Broadway role.

During Follies performances, she said, she could sometimes feel the effect the music was having on the audience.

“I often got the sense that during the performance, our audience changed and became genuinely alive,” she recalls. “Their hearts beat faster, they laughed, or teared up, they understood, they empathized. Real life was compressed into 100 minutes of memorable musical storytelling – and in some magical way, 2,000 human beings would be touched by the wonder and truth of their exceptional humanity, and everyone was the better for it.”

Watson has also performed at noteworthy venues across the country, including Kansas City’s own Starlight Theatre.

Recently, she released a vibrant CD called The Music Never Ends.

As Watson worked with Michele Brourman, the CD’s co-producer and musical director, to determine which songs to include, the two tried out “Long Ago and Far Away,” by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin.

“I hadn’t sung that song for a long while, and halfway through, I suddenly found myself weeping and unable to continue,” she remembers.

The singer realized that during her childhood, her father had often played that song, and all the tender feelings connected with it came flooding back. “They were all there – how much I loved my dad and those happy days with my family,” she says.

“Always soulfully supportive, Michele said if that song kindled such touching memories of paternal love, it must surely be one of the songs selected for the CD.”

The Music Never Ends offer a recounting in song of Watson’s life, loves, and artistic triumphs, she says.

“I see this CD as a musical autobiography of my romances over a lifetime,” she says, “from youthful flirtations, to getting serious, getting married, getting unmarried, rebounding, and somehow surviving all the prickly challenges of being in love.”

Watson selected Brourman and Stephan Oberhoff to produce and orchestrate the project. The resulting arrangements, she said, “are magical for me.”

Because of her popular producers’ sporadic availability, it took them all a full year to record the CD’s 14 songs. Brourman is music director for cabaret composer-singer Amanda McBroom and Oberhoff is Melissa Manchester’s music director and leads a bossa nova jazz group, Heartbeat Brazil.

In creating this CD, Watson says, she and Brourman first tried out potential songs in the studio. If they chose a song, they would nail down its key, tempo and interpretive styling.

Next, they would go to Oberhoff’s studio, where he would record Watson singing the song with piano only.

Then Oberhoff and Brourman would orchestrate and record their arrangement of the song, playing keyboards and strings themselves and adding in the performances of some acoustic musicians. These tracks would then be augmented with a more complete array of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Finally, the fully orchestrated track would be mixed and completed, including the piano-only vocal that Watson had recorded earlier.

As the completed album opens, it greets listeners with “Old Friends,” from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.

Next, Watson says, “Starting Here, Starting Now,” by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, “really starts the CD’s story by examining the youthful search for love with lyrics defining that  … as ‘the greatest journey heaven can allow.’”

Then comes Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark, featuring dulcet tones and a dreamy kind of flavor that make it a highlight of the CD:

I do not care if that day arrives

That dream need never be

If the ship I sing

doesn’t also bring

my own true love to me.

George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day in London Town,” the next song, “calls up for me a lovely memory of my time in the London company of West Side Story,” Watson said.

 After graduating from high school, she was accepted into Juilliard School of Music in New York. But after only a year there, she heard about the new show “West Side Story” and knew she wanted to be a part of it. She sent letters to the theater, asking when they were auditioning for cast replacements, and it wasn’t too long before her enterprising efforts paid off.

“I got a reply that they were planning to take the production to London and they were going to be auditioning people in the fall,” she says. In 1958, she was cast as Velma and headed off to London.

Despite the excitement of being part of the show, being a stranger in a new city was undeniably, at times, a desolate experience.

“I was 19 years old, homesick, and feeling all alone on a foggy and gloomy day off from the show,” she says. “But what a delightful surprise when an old boyfriend suddenly arrived at my London doorstep to brighten my spirits, and suddenly, like the song says, “The sun was shining everywhere!”

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s lilting “They Were You” from The Fantasticks inspires a memory for Watson of her brief stint as the original actress to play Louisa, the lead female character, right before being cast in Birdie.

She reprised the role for a TV version opposite John Davidson. “I originally sang ‘They Were You’ to John in the NBC-TV production of The Fantasticks,” Watson says. “Tom and Harvey, too, became dear friends of mine.”

Later on the album comes the classic “It Had to Be You,” including seldom-heard verses. Amid all the CD’s romantic confessions, she says, a marriage starts to unravel in the lyrics of Gus Kahn’s and Isham Jones’ song:

I’m thinking maybe, baby, I’ll go away

Someday, some way, you’ll come and say

It’s you I need

And you’ll be pleading in vain.

“The CD’s closing chapter is like a final summary of a lifetime of loves in Artie Butler’s song ‘Here’s to Life,’” she says, with Phyllis Molinary’s lyric:

No complaints and no regrets

I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets

For I have learned that all you give is all you get

So give it all you’ve got.

This CD is one that you can happily lose yourself in. The songs have a soft-jazz or easy-listening feel that’s perfect for the background of a laid-back romantic evening.

Watson says that part of the special appeal of this music from the Great American Songbook lies in how it continues to grow with contemporary songwriters and performers. She cited Michael Feinstein as a prime example.

“His singing of the songs of Broadway musicals is luminous. He interprets the classic songs of pop and stage musicals with his own contemporary style, and his ability to turn his songs on an emotional dime makes for performances seamlessly soaring from the romantic to the humorous, from the melancholy to the joyous.”

Many of the composers and writers now adding to this songbook are women, and they are refreshingly well-represented on this CD.

“By sheer coincidence, six of the songwriters here are women,” Watson says.

“It’s ear-opening to hear that in my quest for song excellence, so many women are featured, like Marilyn Bergman, the co-lyricist of ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing?’ as well as Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, the team who wrote ‘Old Friend.’ There’s also Amanda McBroom and Michele Brourman with their song ‘Old Love,’ and Phyllis Molinary, lyricist of the 1992 Grammy-winning song ‘Here’s to Life.’”

Watson says the CD “holds a treasury of songs that illuminate both the warmth and perils of romance and love and concludes that in life we should all give it all we’ve got. In that, all of us — straight or gay — are bound together in the shared experiences of falling in love (with all its ups and downs). I’m confident many out there, regardless of who they are, will surely find something to love themselves in The Music Never Ends.”

Watson’s website is www.susanwatsonmusic.com.