Lena Horne is the season's best musical, Tonys or no Tonys. As a matter of fact, they should invent a whole new category for her: something like Best of Broadway, period. At Monday's preview at the Nederlander, where she officially opened an unlimited engagement last night, she literally took the house by storm. She left the audience standing and cheering. They loved her. But I think my love is deeper than theirs. I keep it inside. Wowee!
The lady, one of the two or three most beautiful women of our time, is at the peak of her artistry in this two-hour show, which includes a few dancers and, spread across the stage behind her, a terrific band with a superb trio nestled within it.
She does mostly old standards, with a few contemporary pieces mixed in. But as many times as you have heard "I'm Glad There Is You," "Bewitched," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" or "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," they emerge new and shiny-bright as if she, delightedly, were introducing them to us, and we, with equal delight, were discovering them.
Looking like several million dollars in a white gown in the first half (Good Lord! she was wearing white the first time I saw her, as a young thing called Helena Horne, a small but stunning part of a Carnegie Hall concert featuring the Basie band and others) and a scarlet one wrapped in a silvery robe held with a fashion model's exquisite poise in the second, she stalks the stage exulting in every minute. Her voice and body are a catalogue of all superior means of expression in popular music; now crooning and almost motionless, now growling and grinding her hips, and now scaling the heights with a flick of the finger or a wicked glance.
Only two popular singers of our time have come on like champs, ready to kill and confident of doing so: Sinatra and Horne, and Lena is the one with a whole voice left. She is also the only miked Broadway attraction (she holds a cordless affair) I fully accept. For Lena, whether at the old Copacabana or the Waldorf or wherever, has always worked with one.
So she kills; feinting, jabbing, always on the mark. 'Deed she does, as in the song "Deed I Do," just one of a few free-and-easy pieces she takes for a dazzling spin with hairbreadth turns (Fats Waller's "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," and Youmans' "I Want to Be Happy" are a couple of others). And...of course, of course...she does "Stormy Weather"; twice, the second time building up to it through the verse and then giving the chorus everything she's got.
She kills now with a difference. Time was, when the bitterness at Hollywood's neglect (her scenes would be cut out of films for showings in the South, as she tells us) was still strong, the killing instinct and the hostility that went with it created a powerful tension. She was great then, but now she's greater still and can discuss, as she does in the rambling narrative with which she intersperses her singing, that past in which "light Egyptian" makeup was created by Max Factor not for her light complexion, but for Ava Gardner to smear on as Julie in "Show Boat." Now, there's vast humor, excitement and, yes, love in her performance.
The lady is the most.
Sorry, this has to be a love letter. The sexiest woman on Broadway is a 63-year-old grandmother. The name is Lena Horne. She opened last night at the Nederlander Theater in her own show, Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music, and she was bewitching, making stormy weather into blue skies. Her talent is cyclonic - on this viewing she is quite simply, here and now, one of the greatest entertainers of our time.
Her appearance - it is a one-woman show with backup musicians and a trio of gifted dancers - is said to mark a comeback period but if the woman can come back like this one wonders why on earth she ever went away.
There is a certain biographical thread to the show, which starts by recalling her early days in Harlem's Cotton Club, her brief Hollywood years and her later appearances on Broadway and in cabaret. The script is lively and witty and the performance is sensational.
The title, in a sense, tells it all, The Lady and Her Music. And both are exquisitely surprising. I have called her the sexiest woman on Broadway which is probably a sexist, even offensive, remark. Why shouldn't a 63-year-old woman be a sex symbol? Well, why not? But it is, you must agree, not usual.
Miss Horne looks stunning - far more interesting than in her salad days of Hollywood. She is a black empress of some exotic empire. Her face is fined down to the bone but is in no way emaciated. She moves with a lissom grace and wears clothes - her wardrobe is by Giorgio Sant' Angelo with the special casualness of beauty.
The thing that is particularly interesting is the impression she contrives of spontaneity.
The character she chooses for herself is that of a survivor. She is game and plucky and above all delightful. She is not ashamed to show her scars, nor is she ashamed to be willfully playful. In fact - the lady is not ashamed. Because the lady is quintessentially a lady.
She can smile and she can snarl. She can be gracious and she can be unexpectedly and deliciously dirty. She grins naughtily and she has the entire audience in the same kind of rapture that she is in herself. The whole performance becomes a homage to a woman, who accepts the homage while, with her wonderful manipulative skills, very definitely explains why the homage must be paid.
So much, or almost so much, for the lady - how about the music? It is strange. Before this show I would not have remotely described myself as a Lena Horne fan - although in just a little more than two hours, for her grueling, tough, sweating, hours, she turned me into a Lena Horne freak.
Previously - and I was clearly wrong - I had never thought much of her singing. I regarded her as a run of the mill pop singer, but not a classic singer in the way of say, an Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Torme. Here she astounded me.
First she commands with a special vocal presence, that odd dramatic individuality of a Maria Callas, but also she has that incredible jazz sensibility that can transform the simply ordinary into the simply extraordinary.
She can make for example, an experience out of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, or The Lady is a Tramp, and she can even make magic out of Surry with a Fringe on Top. Given a number such as Stormy Weather - her signature song - she will use her very rich toned contralto to slide down scales and scale up heights as if she were a Charlie Parker. This is rare, rare, rare.
The musical backing is superb. The musical direction by Harold Wheeler is quite exceptional, updating what are chiefly standard love ballads and torch songs with the most innovative orchestrations, for which the conductor, Coleridge T. Perkinson and the musical consultant, the great Luther Henderson, also demand credit.
What a show! This is what theater and music are all about. The lady may be a tramp, but she is irresistible. Go at once. She may run away in order to make her next comeback.
About midway into the first half of her show at the Nederlander, Lena Horne does the one thing we know she's going to do before we even arrive at the theater. Sliding into her best Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stance, she looks up into a spotlight and proceeds to sing the hell out of ''Stormy Weather.'' The moment doesn't disappoint. As Miss Horne has already demonstrated in the evening's warm-up numbers - ''From This Moment On,'' ''Where or When,'' ''Can't Help Loving Dat Man of Mine'' - she's in transcendent voice and, at age 63, as beautiful and elegant as ever. You can be sure that she sings ''Stormy Weather'' so it will stay sung.
Still, there's something disconcerting about her decision to give us this treat so early in the evening. It's an unspoken rule of recitals like this that a singer saves her trademark number for the evening's ultimate, or at least penultimate, spot. The star still has a good hour of singing to go after ''Stormy Weather,'' and we begin to worry how in the world she can possibly top her most famous showstopper.
But Lena Horne - as we should have learned by now - is nobody's fool. Late in her show's second half, just after a racy ''Love Me or Leave Me,'' she announces her next number by saying ''I had to grow into this song.'' And then what does she do? Why, she sings ''Stormy Weather'' all over again. Only this time she sings it as if she had just grown into it, as if she had never sung it before. Before she even hits the first lyric, she lets loose with a gospel cry that erupts from her gut with almost primeval force. Then she bobs gently up and down, staring into her hand mike, letting the words pour out. By the time she tells us that ''it's raining all the time'' - packing about a dozen torrential notes into the word ''raining'' -she is blind with sweat and tears. And so is the audience. Not only have we heard a great singer top what we thought to be her best work, but we've also witnessed an honest-to-God coup de theatre.
If that second ''Stormy Weather'' is the indisputable high point of ''Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,'' the riches of the evening scarcely end there. Miss Horne is out to prove something in this revue, and it's not merely that her talents and looks are unbruised by the years that have passed since she first danced across a Cotton Club stage an era ago. She doesn't simply present herself as a survivor - a favorite device of older stars who come back to Broadway - but as an artist who is still growing, who is only now reaching the peak of her powers. Miss Horne proves her point handily in a show that, for all its high-spirited fun, also turns out to be surprisingly moving.
Miss Horne accomplishes this feat without the aid of lectures or phony schmaltz. She provides only a few autobiographical anecdotes, all of which are told with good humor even though they frequently deal with racist indignities she suffered in Hollywood. Most of the time, she just sings down front, to the accompaniment of a superb on-stage band under the direction of Harold Wheeler. In ''Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,'' Miss Horne seems to be saying that the lady is her music: she transforms each song, however familiar, into an intensely personal story that we've never quite heard before.
Though all her celebrated gestures are there - the clipped diction, the naughty grins, the finger-snapping sassiness - she's singing with an abandon, range and feeling that weren't apparent even as recently as her last New York appearance with Tony Bennett. Letting her fists fly, she punches up ''I Got a Name'' with defiance, if not outright anger. For ''I'm Glad There Is You,'' she surprises us by suddenly breaking out of her smoky, twangy register to embrace a top note with a bell-clear soprano. For ''The Lady Is a Tramp,'' she's so down and dirty she's practically crouching on the floor: on the lyric ''I'm flat/that's that,'' her voice becomes an instrument as peppery as Louis Armstrong's horn.
On other occasions, she teaches us just about everything there is to know about styling a song. No matter how many thousand times you've heard ''The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,'' it's possible you've never quite heard Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics until you hear Miss Horne spell them out, point by point, in the best pianissimo manner of her Waldorf period. ''I Want to Be Happy'' is sung with shifting rythms and colors until it's a standard reborn. Miss Horne introduces ''Bewitched'' as ''a sad song about an old broad - with money.'' Then she shows us what she means by turning from bitterness on the phrase ''half-pint imitation'' to a debutante's kittenish rapture on ''Now I'm like sweet-17 a lot.''
It must be noted that not all of the show is as well-styled as Miss Horne's music. The choreographer Arthur Faria, working with a trio of talented singer-dancers but cramped floor space, contributes a Cotton Club routine that looks pretty wan next to the one in ''Sophisticated Ladies.'' Though Thomas Skelton's lighting is fine, either he or the set designer, David Gropman, has made too much of a fetish of exposed klieg lights. As is the habit of fashion designers who create costumes for the stage, Giorgio Sant'Angelo has supplied Miss Horne with glamorous outfits that are impractical, even cumbersome, in performance.
Yet these are at most minor irritations in an evening of generally undiluted triumph. Maybe the star is looking back at her old days - clear back to four decades ago, when Fats Waller taught her songs at the piano - but she emphatically isn't living in them. For both Lena Horne and the audience, the excitement is beginning all over again - right now.