to Front Page
Back to Articles Index
Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Chapin, who is 32, turned to music in 1972, after he wrote and directed a documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award. "I'd been a folkie in college, but hadn't made it, so I decided to try." His first single Taxi, which crawled into the national Top Twenty despite its 6:44 length. "People have sometimes accused me of trying to write hit singles, but that was about as unusual a single as there could be. It was more a request item than a big seller and Jerry Peterson of KHJ in Los Angeles just told me that Taxi gets more requests than any other song except Stairway to Heaven. Peterson paid Chapin a more unorthodox compliment by selecting his What Made America Famous as the only current single programmed on the 1974 KHJ Memorial Day Solid Gold Weekend's Firecracker 500.
"That was a thrill," Chapin said. "If I had a choice,
I would have wished What Made America Famous had been my big
hit." The song lives on as a pivotal number in The Night That
Made America Famous, a Broadway production written by and starring
Chapin, scheduled to open February 4th. "It's a multimedia meeting
place of a musical and rock concert," he said. "There will be
30 songs, 16 of them new. We have the first six-figure media budget any
Broadway project like this ever had." Guessing who might attend
such a production, Chapin said, "I think I write for real people.
My vision is evidently shared by many people. There is no humanity
market in a sales sense, which is why some of my records make it and
some don't. But I think this one is scaring fathers from coast to coast.
I suspect wives are buying for their husbands."
It put the art of the singer/songwriter on a different level than the concert, Harry's previous method (and everybody else's). Here he was, in a small, intimate theatre, surrounded by dancers, moving props, revolving stages, multimedia projection on to a white screen and musicians who weave in and out of scenery on moving podiums.
The show runs for two and a half hours with a short interval, but there is no break between songs. It can I think, be compared to David Bowie's extravaganza that toured the US last year, except that Harry's effort is both friendlier and longer, and he does occasionally acknowledge the presence of an audience.
At the end, when the carefully rehearsed routines are over, Harry stays for encores that drop the formality of the rest of the concert, eventually encouraging his audience to join in, introducing his two brothers and father (who plays drums in his band) and even bringing on the theatre doorman who just happens to be a genius at playing the musical saw.
The show is a success, no doubt about that. It opened to mixed reviews from the New York critics, but Harry thinks - and hopes - it'll run for six months which will keep him busy until the end of the summer.
A week after the actual opening, there were no seats vacant, apart from glaring pair two rows from the front right in the centre. One suspects someone didn't show. The most effective parts of the performance came during Harry's particularly moving songs like The Sniper, which was accompanied by a tableau depicting JFK, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, with his cast as bystanders apparently being interviewed by TV reporters. This scenario climaxes the first half.
I liked the segment that featured Mr Tanner, Harry's song about a singer who left his small town to sing in New York, but was ultimately panned by the critics, eventually returning home a broken man. On this Harry was accompanied by a black baritone who sang the part of the singer across Harry's narrative. Very effective.
Chapin's material easily lends itself to this kind of adaptation: several songs feature a two-way conversation which, out of necessity, must both be sung by the same voice on record. In this context Chapin can put them over properly, like mini-operettas.
Taxi was good too. Here Harry utilised the female voice of Kelly Garrett to play the part of the passenger in Chapin's cab, the old girlfriend who'd gone on to find fame and fortune as an actress. The whole performance seems to be attempting to bring our attention to the decline in the way of American life, pointing an accusing finger at things which are basically wrong.
But he's not the prophet of doom: the show is too cheery for that. He's more of an innocent bystander, desperately hoping that the administration will come to its senses before it's too late.
The cast of eight that appear behind Chapin are energetic and used economically. Most of them get one solo spot and they are frequently called upon to operate small closed circuit TV cameras which project Harry or the soloists of the moment onto a circular screen at the rear.
The four-song encore (which apparently varies each night) comes as a slight relief after the rehearsed precision of the actual show. Harry closes with Circle, the song from his second album which was covered in England by the New Seekers. "It's a dumb song" he told his audience "so you can all join in."
Harry's two brothers, Tom and Stephen, also get a song each during the encore, while the remainder of the cast sit around like children being told a bedtime story. Tom plays guitar in the backing band and Stephen, who is the musical director for the show, plays keyboards.
"People say my songs are like mini-movies, and I've been able to combine this with film script writing, the theatre and the sort of multi-media pop concert that we've got in this show.
"The basic question I'm asking in the show is how does a thinking human being, who's gone through all the ups and downs and heartbreaks and hopes of the last 15 years, come out with something to face the next 15."
"I'm what they call a 'hard-assed liberal,' and I've been trying to look at the ills. If you've got cancer you should cut your leg off or wherever the cancer is: do something about it rather than dance while Rome burns or flee the city."
Two-thirds of the material in Harry's show has been specially written for it, while the rest has been picked from Chapin's four albums. He felt obliged to include his better known numbers, though W*O*L*D, the song about a radio station disc-jockey, isn't there.
"Obviously any artistic endeavour has a lot of patchwork to it, so I had to include some of my better known ones. Taxi is actually three songs stuck together, anyway. In my performances I act out my songs, like Sniper, but maybe I do it a little more in this show.
"I have more dramatic leeway in this context, so we utilise it." Harry's fifth album will be out in a month's time and it contains a companion song to Cat's In The Cradle, which was a number one hit in the U.S. over Christmas. This time Harry has written about his daughter, or more correctly, Harry's wife has written about their daughter and Harry composed the melody. The lyrics to Cat's In The Cradle were actually written by Harry's wife, Sandy, her first writing attempt.
"The song about my daughter is called Song For Jaime or Tangled Up Puppet. I haven't settled on a title yet but it'll be on the next album. I've finished all the basic tracks, but I've got to do some more vocals and some string parts."
One of Harry's reasons for doing the Broadway show is to get off the road for a while so he can be home with his wife and kids. For this reason, too, he hopes it'll run for six months or more, but that depends entirely on the box-office success of the venture. At the time of writing it's been running just over a week.
"Also, I've got a lot of screenplays to write which I can do during the day. With this show I can take the train or drive in from my home in Huntingdon and have the days free to do other things. There's certain things about repetition that aren't all that thrilling, but you've got to discipline yourself. I mean, a bank clerk does the same thing every day so why shouldn't I do that for a while.
" I have no idea whether it'll last six months at all. I don't know what the effect of reviews are these days, but I do know that many shows that get bad reviews have very long runs. We've had some bad reviews and some raves, so we'll just have to see. That's the suspense in it "
Lastly, Harry disclosed that he wants to go over to Europe as soon as the show's run on Broadway finishes. "I'd like to go over and take my family, because my ancestors came from England hundreds of years ago. Cat's In The Cradle hasn't done all that well over there, so I don't know whether we could arrange a tour or not. W*O*L*D was a minor hit, Taxi never got played, and Circle was the only song that made it, but that was by the New Seekers. I really want to get there, though."
According to the programme notes, the show is the ninth version of a project first conceived in 1966, a fact that Harry confirmed when we met backstage after the performance. It has, says the programme, worked its way from "pre-Oklahoma" to "post-Hair" during this time.
"My first three ideas were originally set on an island in the Caribbean called Beraica, which was a mixture of Bermuda and Jamaica. The next three were set in the ghetto, and the other two in a guy's mind. This is the ninth version, and I guess it's set in my mind."
A multimedia artist Harry doesn't see this show as a big change in the direction his career is taking. He'll still do concerts, but he believes in as much variation as possible. "It's just different, that's all," he said. "I like concerts because the formlessness of a concert allows you to go with your moods much more than this, and the structure enables you to reach higher intensity points.
"Each one has its own virtues and I'm trying very strongly in my
life not to get stuck into only one line. The most successful ventures
in my life, among the things I've done, have been cross-pollination of
various things, combining all my experiences.
However that promise (?) is not entirely ruined by Portrait Gallery.
It sports three satisfying numbers and a lot of dross in which Chapin's
remarkable facility with word and rhyme lead him into arch moralising
and to the very gates of the sentimentality which has made Rod McKuen
such a pain in the ass.
One thinks of Rod McKuen, Randy Newman, Neil Diamond, and now one can add Harry Chapin to the list. Our man is a first class candidate for the Throaty Warblers' Hall of Fame. The voice is suitably quavery, croaky, clumsy and artless. Dreadful shrieks, unconvincing whoops and grotesquely mannered phrasing are all displayed within a few bars of the opening piece, "On The Road rO Kingdom Come." It is as if Aretha Franklin had never sung a note and we are all flung back to the end of the Clacton Pier.
And, of course, non-singers always proudly bear aloft their lyrics, usually wry observations on this funny old world, admonitions to a whole string of long suffering girl-friends, and cautionary tales spun from a great storehouse of wisdom. Non-singers surround themselves with devoted session musicians who pick away at acoustic guitars, various strings and horns, and are deeply honoured to be associated with such a project.
Non-singers also draw vast armies of devoted fans who cheer loudly as the first line of one of their most obscure songs is hinted at while the glass of water goes down on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. "This one I wrote while I was up in Canada for a while last summer. Met a few real nice people there, and this song is dedicated to their memory."
Harry throats on with grim determination and glad tidings through
"The Parade's Still Passing By," "The Mayor Of Candor
Lied," "Corey's Coming," "If My Mary Were
Here," and a whole host more. A work of rare artistry for some,
utter tedium for the rest of us.