The Bootleg Files – Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music

BOOTLEG FILES 616: “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” (filmed version of award-winning 1981 Broadway show).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS release in 1984.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely due to music rights clearance issues.


In March 1980, Lena Horne announced that she would be retiring from show business. That did not last very long. In May 1981, she was back in what became the crowning commercial achievement of her long and often tumultuous career: the Broadway production “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” The show ran for 333 performances, earned Horne a special Tony Award, then successfully toured North America and played in the West End to standing ovations.

A filmed record of the show was broadcast on PBS and Showtime in 1984 and was later on home video. To date, it has never been reissued in any home entertainment format. Viewed today, however, the production does not hold up very well.

In her peak years, Horne brought style, passion and gusto to her music. But the Broadway show offered the star at a melodramatic extreme. Her facial emoting during her performances, which grew more intense in her later years, was frequently out of control in this production. Of course, Horne’s theatricality – not to mention her clunky jewelry and cumbersome costuming – was designed to meet the audience parameters of a Broadway theater and not the intimacy of the small screen. But when magnified by the camera, her actions often came across as overbaked and even borderline grotesque.

Even more challenging was her song stylings. Her interpretation of songs took on a raw and often weird excess that bore no resemblance to her classic work. It sometimes seemed as if the ghost of Janis Joplin kept trying to channel its way into her vocalizing.

For example, her spin on Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” – which she memorably essayed in a standout appearance on “The Muppet Show” – was shredded into a raw, angry defiance that seemed to have little connection with Croce’s wishful tune. The lovable standard “I Want to Be Happy” was slashed into an infantile-level parody, while “But Not for Me” is littered with a surplus of vibrato flourishes and caustic shtick that gave the impression of an old woman trying and failing to be cute.

In creating the show, Horne was adamant to stay away from sentimental nostalgia. As a result, she indulged in generous spoonfuls of camp and revisionism in her biography. A trio of singer/dancers, one male and two females, joined her on the stage to recall her early days as a Cotton Club performer. Horne, who was 63 at the time, gamely kept up with some very light footwork, but the effect is flat and silly. In between numbers, she told the audience about how she ran away in her youth to Pittsburgh “and had two babies – I had a husband, too, but that was another trip.” (Actually, she was married for nearly a year before the first of her children was born.) Horne also engaged in lengthy recollections of how Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stole away “her role” of Julie in the 1951 film of “Show Boat,” handing the part to non-singer Ava Gardner. (In reality, Horne was no longer at the studio at the time, and production documents later showed that Horne was never considered for the film.)

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the show is Horne’s take on “Push De Button,” the Calypso-flavored novelty song she originally sang on Broadway in 1957 during the show “Jamaica.” The song’s exuberance over a Caribbean girl’s fascination with American technology is handled in a flat, almost bored style, with the three back-up performers serving as vocal equals to help Horne carry the tune.

Nearly midway through the production, however, Horne hit the jackpot with a bold, distinctive spin on Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young.” The mournful lament to a squandered existence was presented in a bitter, anguish interpretation that may have touched a few too many nerves for the star. “It’s very difficult for me, that song,” she would recall years later. “It brings back too much. Every line has to do with my life.”

Horne’s signature song, “Stormy Weather,” appeared twice in show: once near the midpoint in a somewhat indifferent spin, and then in the closing in a roof-raising shrieking performance that takes the notion of self-indulgence to new depths. Anyone who was enchanted with Horne’s flawless interpretation of the song in the film of the same name would be confused or worse at her wild and bitter riff.

While the Broadway critics loved the show, Horne biographer James Glavin found some who were not happy. Playwright Mart Crowley questioned the biographical anecdotes that Horne dropped, noting, “I knew those stories were either paranoia or deliberate fiction.” Playwright and director Arthur Laurents was aghast as Horne dipped into an Ebonics-tinged voice during the show, complaining, “That faux African-American jive she was putting on was absolutely whipped up for the occasion. I thought it was grotesque.” And Nat Horne (no relation), a dancer in her “Jamaica” show, lamented how she forgot everyone who helped advance her career while making herself a constant victim of injustice. “She made a caricature of herself,” he complained.

Nonetheless, Horne’s fans overlooked (and, perhaps, embraced) her excesses, and the show helped to reaffirm her standing as an entertainment icon. While the Grammy-winning album of the show’s score remains in print, the video recording has been out of circulation for many years. A less-than-perfect dupe can be found on YouTube, and that will probably be the only version unavailable until music rights are cleared to enable the show’s return in the current home entertainment formats.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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