Q & A: Musical Legacy of Hoagy Carmichael with Tony Nominee Susan H. Schulman, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, and Michael Lichtefeld
If you think you don’t know Hoagy Carmichael’s music, you probably do. Anyone who has beat out heart and soul on the piano, fallen in love with the soundtrack to “Sleepless in Seattle” or can remember Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” is familiar with Carmichael’s songs. In fact, he wrote hundreds of songs, collaborated with lots of other artists like Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His song “Stardust” has been recorded over 2000 times, and was selected for inclusion in the national recording registry at the Library of Congress in 2004. For the last six years. Carmichael’s son, Hoagy Bix, along with Tony-nominated director Susan H. Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, have been developing a new musical featuring songs from Carmichael’s catalog. The show is making its world premiere here in Sanford, North Carolina, a far cry from Carmichael’s beloved home of Bloomington, Indiana, and that’s where my conversation with Lichtefeld, Schulman and Hoagie Bix begins. To listen to the podcast episode, click here.
Hoagy Bix: Dad was forever a guy from Indiana. I’ve said this before, uh, for forever until he died, his phone number was in the phone book. We went to restaurants, we never sat in the public, I mean a private space. He didn’t need that really. He was a little like his music all about the flow. Somebody was asking me a couple days ago, many, four times I think, I remember driving along with dad and he would stop and write a song idea on the hood of the car. If I may use the word genius, if he wasn’t a genius, he was close to it., as a lot of these guys were.
RDU on Stage: So in talking about this musical ‘Stardust Road,’. how do you pick what songs to use out of this vast catalog of music?
Susan: It’s, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s, you know, it really is. It’s a blessing because you have so much to choose from, and it’s a curse because you have so much to choose from. When, when Hoagy called me about this project, I, I didn’t know the catalog and I think my response was I knew the obvious songs, right? And I said, well, let me take a look at it and see if I thought, I mean, I was really sort of really, uh, let, let me look at the catalog and see if we did something theatrical we can find here and when I went into look at it, I was like, “Oh my goodness.” And songs I’ve known my whole life, again, I had no idea he had written. And then when we went further, it became only, it was like Pandora’s box. But one of the things we came up with rather soon, uh, was the four decades in which he wrote, which was the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, and the 50s. So those decades were clear to us and his music evolved over those decades. And that’s part of the thing we’re trying to show here, as well as the relationships evolving, that his music became more sophisticated, more complex, more internal, um, as far as the emotionality of it goes. And that’s part of what, uh, moves our story forward as well.
Michael: As Susan was saying, the, the, the music gets more sophisticated as we went. Ragtime is kind of where we start. And as the choreographer, it gave me a chance to, to choreograph four different decades of dance, which helps set not only set tone but set period. Uh, because what better way than with movement to uh, to show how it evolved, how we evolve,
Hoagy Bix: And one thing, interesting. I have a new favorite song of dad’s, a song I did not know existed four years ago called ‘The World of No Goodbyes’. It’s written in 1944, World War II song, about, you know, you kiss them goodbye, they go off, and who knows when they come back.
Michael: And what’s interesting when we, I mean, you have no idea how big the catalog is or maybe if you looked, but, uh, you know, when, when I went looking for stuff, uh, you know, I like went, ‘Oh my stars,’ you know, and, and, and we did, we did, we found that we found ‘The World of No Goodbyes’ and he like, went, “What is that song?” The title caught my eye, and I like went, “Oh, ‘The World of No Goodbyes,’ hm, let’s listen to it and see.’ And you know, you have to go to Spotify and YouTube and everywhere possible to try and get, uh, to hear what it is. But the, the, uh, the library at, at IU [Indiana University] was incredibly helpful to us, because we could go and check stuff out. And, uh, and not only do they have, um, Hoagy’s music there, but they also have handwritten lyrics. Yeah, the old fashioned lead sheets at least, which, you know, help us say, okay, the lyrics of this song are pertinent to the position to the plot that we’re having here. But there was a song that he had not heard as of yesterday, uh, called ‘Sittin’ and Whittlin’ and it’s just an old-time, toe-tapping, ragtime piece that, that we get to show off our, our live band, which is really exciting for us. And, and uh, they just, they just whale on it. Larry Yurman who, who’s, who’s not here with us, he’s done extraordinary work on this show. And I think all of us will agree that, that his contribution to the show is immeasurable.
Susan: It’s, it’s quite a feat to keep something in period, but keep it modern, but give it a modern twist. And part of what we try to do is take songs that were written, most of them are written as pop tunes, they were not written in context of storytelling. So we’re trying to give them a storytelling context, meaning a beginning, a middle, and a journey, and I have to compliment our performers, and Larry, of course, because they’ve been able to take these songs and suddenly their character tunes and they’re plot songs, and they, you see them, the performers going through a journey and having a revelation and all these things. So they stand as theater songs. Um, which just goes to prove how, um, how talented he was.
Hoagy Bix: And let me just quickly interject, because, um, dad almost never wrote for somebody or for something. So it definitely was not written for it, telling a story, oh, no, absolutely not.
Michael: We’ve got a, uh, a relatively young cast performing these, because we, we made the decision early on to have young people doing old time songs to see what they, what they bring to [Susan] intrinsically. And I think the thing that’s astounding to this cast, and, and even in the workshops that we’ve done prior to this, is how everybody relates to this music. They all just, they all like went, ‘Oh my gosh, this stuff is so beautiful,’ which it is, but uh, it’s unknown to them at the audition. So, you know, you know, I’ll go, ‘Who knows, who doesn’t know who Hoagy Carmichael is?’ And all these hands. Sad. But the revelation to them of that, you know, ‘Georgia on My Mind.’
Hoagy Bix: … was not written by Ray Charles.
Michael: Right, right, exactly. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think they’ve all kind of taken this music to heart and have embraced, uh, you know, what we’re trying to do with it.
RDU on Stage: Had he written for the stage?
Hoagy Bix: ‘I Walk with Music,’ Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics, and you know, they played , The Barrymore for I think 43 performances.
Michael: Actually a lot of that music is in our show. We found the, the songs and like went these, well, ‘I Walk with Music’ which is uh, one of the final numbers of the show, and the title of the show that that didn’t last. It’s, it’s so gripping and you know, you like go, how did this show with this kind of music, how did it not work? I’m curious as to, I’d love to read the show. I’d love to read the book and just go, okay, well what happened? What happened? What didn’t work. All composers have shows that, you know, Irving Berlin had shows that flopped. So I mean it’s, it’s not that unusual, but uh, something went wrong because the music that we’ve heard from the show is all pretty fabulous.
RDU on Stage: One thing that surprised me about your dad, which I didn’t actually know, is that he went to law school. Did he not think music was a viable profession? It was money, right?
Hoagy Bix: Well, it was, make a living. And when he was down in Palm Beach, um, at one point, even in my youth, a record store would almost always play music that you could hear out on the street. And dad was walking along the street and he heard, ‘Wait a minute, they’re playing ‘Washboard Blues,’ Red Nichols and the Five Pennies are playing my song, it’s on a record.’ He went in there, both sides were him. That was the moment where dad said, ‘I’m outta here.’.
RDU on Stage: Not gonna be a lawyer.
Hoagy Bix: Well, they like my stuff.. They’re playing my stuff. I don’t even know who made the deal for me? I don’t know…
Susan: Well, those days it was really horrifying the way how writers did not get compensated for the use of their music. I mean, that took such a long time and a lot of negotiation to get that. Even today it’s hard to explain to young people why they have to pay to use a song.
Hoagy Bix: Jelly Roll Morton used to start the top of 22nd street, which was a, uh, Tin Pan Alley. And, um, he would make a deal with four or five of them, knowing he was never gonna get paid by most of them.
RDU on Stage: Well, and in your life and your career, you have had a bond with other children of famous songwriters, Mary Rogers. I know you’ve, you set up a, an organization with Mary to protect the legacy of this music and to protect the copyright.
Hoagy Bix: What you haven’t said is that we were working to extend the term of copyright 20 years. That’s important because you have songs like ‘Stardust.’ ‘Stardust’ now would be out of copyright. So would ‘Georgia.’ And um, there was a groundswell of not just people in the music business, but pen, the writers and the movie industry very much. In fact, Michael Eisner is the guy that cemented the deal. He went to Washington, had dinner with Clinton, and he says, ‘uh, Mickey Mouse is going out of copyright soon,’ same year ‘Stardust,’ 1927. And um, Clinton said, ‘Alright, that’s all I need to hear.’
RDU on Stage: So, can you tell me about your dad’s relationship with Bix Beiderbecke, your, your middle namesake?
Hoagy Bix: Well, dad was going to Indiana trying to get a law degree. He had to make some money. He was booking bands in, and had his own band, at the wonderful theater, Indiana Theater. And um, he booked The Wolverines. Bix was in the The Wolverines. He knew about Bix, he never met Bix. When they met, uh, maybe the second time, I’m not sure, after the gig Bix said, “Hey, I hear you can, you have some music in you.” And, and dad sat down and played some stuff for Bix and in four months, they were down in Richmond Indiana recording. And to my father, I mean that’s, you know, catching a pass from Eli Manning or something, you know, Sandy Koufax, I mean, what? So, it was a, it was a, a mentorship that, started just that way.
RDU on Stage: Did your dad have any regrets?
Hoagy Bix: Here’s what dad’s regret was. Dad knew how to arrange music. I mean, write music and he knew about lyrics. He just did. And my father red lined Johnny Mercer and he red lined Ned Washington, and he red lined everybody, and he came back with arguably a better idea and dad regrets that, did regret that he was not, um, a kinder and gentler soul artistically with some of the writers that he worked with. I heard dad say that.
RDU on Stage: Did he have a favorite song?
Hoagy Bix: Well, it’s not in the show. Um, yes, he had a song that he loved called “One Morning in May.” Dad loved that song. Um, he also liked “Stardust” because it hit him on the hip, made some money there.
RDU on Stage: I mean it was recorded 1500 times, so…
Hoagy Bix: No, no, no. 2300 times. A woman call me 10 years ago and said, ‘Uh, my husband had one hobby and one hobby only and that was collecting versions of ‘Stardust’.’ She said, ‘I don’t have them all, but I have 1600.’ So she sent them to me and they’re at Indiana.
RDU on Stage: Do you guys have a favorite song in the show?
Michael: Oh, I do, “Just the Shade on the Blue Side.”
Susan: ‘How Little We Know.’ There’s something about that song that just touches me every time I hear it. It’s so true.
Michael: Well, and it’s a beguine. Who knew that Hoagy Carmichael wrote a beguine. Cole Porter is the only person that wrote a beguine, and we listened to it, and there are two of them, that and ‘Ivy’ which are, which are both beguine rhythms.
RDU on Stage: How has the show changed in six years? I know you’ve been working on it awhile.
Michael: Way, way back when we first started with it, it was just kind of showing the evolution of the music and how it evolved, uh, up Hollywood. There were no real relationships throughout. But last year when we went to Indiana, relationships started to develop, and characters started to develop. And and that kind of happened last, last year and even more so here, because of the actors and because we had the opportunity to uh, Peggy Taphorn, God bless her and the Temple, and the Temple Theatre for giving us this opportunity to hone it and to continue working on it.
Susan: You can be in a studio for the rest of your life and you’ll never find out what you find out by sitting out there and watching something on the stage. It reveals itself differently.
Michael: And you have to realize, we’ve never seen it with a band. We’ve never seen it on stage. We’ve never seen it in costume. We’ve never seen it with sound. This is, this is a new beginning for us on it.
Hoagy Bix: We had an interesting thing happened because I went to London and made a deal with Cameron Mackintosh’s brother Robert. And we went over there and we cast the show and we had arrangements and all that. That was another show, really. It’s this show, but it’s another show. And Michael and I were talking about that last night, and saying it was good darn thing we didn’t go through.
Susan: That’s right, it didn’t happen, it didn’t go through, because it wasn’t ready.
Hoagy Bix: No, it wasn’t.
Susan: …and we didn’t really know that at the time. Now we know it.
Michael: I firmly believe that Hoagy is looking down on us and going, ‘Not that one, this one.’ I think that, I believe it. And because the, the show changed dramatically from what we would have done in London. And, and who knows? Had we done it there, it could’ve been the end.
RDU on Stage: What is it about these old songs that still speak to us today?
Susan: Everybody can relate to the emotion. There is what we used to call a hook in the good old days. You know where a song would start, and you would go, okay, there’s a melodic hook and there’s a structure to it that makes some sort of musical sense, which carries the emotion to a place of release, and people take that journey, they take that musical journey. Songs are not constructed that way by in large today and it’s, it’s that kind of classical construction that still holds true no matter what.
Hoagy Bix: It’s interesting because um, most of the music, dad’s music, was originally jazz driven. I remember, I don’t know, I don’t think Michael and Susan have heard this, but they had to move to Missoula, Montana because his father needed to find some job. And I went to the house with dad, when dad was making a picture out there, and it’s a little house and all that, and the railroad tracks are from here, the door and behind that was a row of brick houses, probably 20 all connected. And dad said, Oh yeah,’ he said, ‘That’s where the whorehouses were in town.’ And there were also black musicians in almost every one of them playing ragtime and early jazz. He said, ‘I went down there and listened, and that stuff went in one ear and stayed there.’ So, you know, whether by father liked it or not, he was immersed.
RDU on Stage: Now your dad, I mean, we’re talking 40 years of music just as a snapshot in this particular musical. Did he ever talk to you about how the music industry had changed?
Hoagy Bix: You have no idea. My father was really, really saddened and believed very strongly that his music was, if not dead, soon to die. He ended up collecting coins. He ended up playing a lot more golf. There was no place, there was no avenue for his music. The Jefferson Airplane was making all the money. And my father died thinking that his work had a life and it was over.
RDU on Stage: What do you think Hoagy would say about having a whole show like this?
Hoagy Bix: Oh, please, you’re gonna make me cry because I wish, I really wish, I really wish he were here to see this because it would, it would erase, to some extent, those feelings he had for 12, 15 years before he died.
Susan: It’s a terrible feeling to think that you’ve been left behind, that what you’ve contributed is no longer relevant.
Michael: I think one thing that we’re trying to do with this particular piece is to remind an audience of Hoagy Carmichael’s legacy for people that may not know it.