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Broadway's 'Golden Boy'
Hibernate this, Puxatawney Phil:
Charles Strouse is the most successful weather forecaster of all time.
After all, the man who wrote "Grey skies are going to clear up," and "The sun will come out tomorrow" has been right 100 percent of the time.
Take that, Weather Channel, and stick it where the sun ... well, where the sun does shine.
"Bye Bye Birdie"? Bid greetings to a major success story. But like everything else coming his way -- Tonys, Emmys, almost every award named after someone of note -- Strouse accepts the new weather honor from "On the Scene" with grace notes and aplomb that have graced his 50-year career as a composer.
Name that tune? One note will tell you it's most likely his.
Whether he believes the weather honor is another story, which reveals a story about an 81-year-old Broadway mega-musical legend that is a "Night Song" as much as it is a day trip into the archives of an "All-American" (he composed that one, too).
And for all that -- the triumphs and the truck-loads of memories -- Strouse will waltz to the stage of the Arts Bank in Center City on Sunday, May 16, to receive the first Gershman Y Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts and Culture following a quartet of performances, beginning on May 13, presented by the Y (www.gershmany.org) of the revue "By Strouse."
By now, Strouse has heard it all -- most likely what he is hearing are the dozens of disks he has been responsible for since this son of Ira and Ethel first wailed his way into the world -- pitch-perfect -- in New York.
Party animal? More Tony than toga. Certainly, this long, long weekend of celebrations feting the man who brought "Annie" out of the Depression and, once upon a time, scored a "Once Upon a Time" that was made timeless by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin, knows from fancy fete work: For his 80th birthday, Broadway had its way with him, tossing so many festivities and honors that the Champagne bubbles never hit a flat note.
While the city sleeps, Strouse is probably still composing; there is a current revival of his "It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman" in Dallas for which he penned four new songs.
It's a burst of energy ... it's plain great ... it's ... Strouse. Yet, cryptically, he has his own Krypton to carry.
"It's funny that I would have written so many songs that were optimistic; it's not my nature," says the natural pessimist. "I come from a Jewish background -- although I'm an atheist -- with a dark view of things."
Think "Annie" had a hard-knock life? No knock on Daddy Warbucks' ward, but Strouse faced a war of worries when he was young.
"My mother was a very depressive woman," he recalls of the downbeat dimension she lent to life.
"I was always trying to cheer her up. Guess that was a foreboding of what I was to write."
That write stuff was often in tandem with lyricist partner Lee Adams. "Lee and I did write a lot of up music."
And leave it to Strouse's Mom to up the ante when she ran into Stephen Sondheim's aunt on an around-the-world cruise.
"I gave her that cruise as a present after my first major success," recalls the composer with a chuckle. "And Steve's aunt was on the same cruise and each argued about whose ['boy'] was more talented."
The "Golden Boy" composer doesn't even know if his longtime good friend Sondheim heard that little night music of memories.
Here's one that harkens back to Harlem and the "happy home" that set the scene for the at-the-time controversial 1964 musical starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a boxer with miscegenation on his mind.
"One of the greatest compliments I ever received," notes Strouse, who was active in the 1960s push for civil rights -- a rite of his own passage he is proud of -- "was when a black woman said that my 'Night Song' [from the show] captured the feelings of a black person."
So much is also captured in his charming 2008 anecdotal arsenal of sweet scores, Put on a Happy Face.
There are some scores to settle; even now, bringing up the name of Arthur Laurents -- perhaps most notable for his work as book-writer on "Gypsy" and "West Side Story" -- is akin to dragging in the Jets and the Sharks for a rumble of ripostes. Those were the days (Strouse also penned that as the theme for "All in the Family") when he and Laurents shared laurels and light-hearted moments as friends "until he suddenly turned on me with such total venom."
Although that relationship turned snake eyes, Strouse nevertheless remains clear-eyed about any reason for rapprochement. "He recently sent me a nice letter -- I didn't respond," but, who knows, he says, of his "Nick & Nora" collaborator who nicked his heart.
"He's 91 or 92, I'm 81."
Stick around, life is for the living, not livid.
Live it up? Maybe that explains why his former "happiness" rating has changed. It used to be Strouse was unhappy 32 percent of the time, he jokes of his irritability. Erase that; he's much better now.
Not that Strouse doesn't have his share of grudges from snubs.
"I recall a party that I wasn't invited to early on and was hurt," he says. "That just shows how shallow a person I am."
On a deeper dimension was the anti-Semitism he faced working as a teen on a tobacco farm with his older brother David, when, after being summoned with a "Hey, Jew boys," the two were cornered by fellow workers and David beaten up.
As he writes, "We were rescued by what the workers called the 'Jew boss' as he rode by in his pickup truck."
Strouse doesn't have much truck with such "treasured" memories any more. "That horror ... it's disappeared from memory. Forgotten."
Unforgettable, however, was a marriage on which he not so marched down the aisle as passed out on it. Yes, he says, he fainted.
Feign surprise? No need. He passed out, but didn't take a pass at completing the ceremony.
Scores of years later, "I'm very happily married" and, he notes of longtime wife Barbara Siman, "she is the best friend I've ever had -- and I was never great at making friends."
The wonderful woman he's shared time with since that wedding day -- not counting Emmy -- makes him feel like he has the best seat in the orchestra.
First chair all the way: "It's great to sit with someone so wonderful at night" and share dreams and stories. And four children.
"Oh, I can have some complaints about them -- one doesn't call enough -- but I'm crazy about them."
Put on a happy face? His family has done that for him.
The hits, the awards, the honors ... they're nice, too, he adds. "I'm proud of them."
As for the weather report for this long weekend of Y tributes, why question the authority on it all.
The forecast is a foregone conclusion.
Yes, avers Strouse, the Dapper 81 oracle, the sun will come out tomorrow.
Bet your bottom dollar.