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Buffalo's Music Man MusicalFare Theatre brings the life and tunes of songwriter Harold Arlen to the stage, reconnecting his legacy to the city and culture that produced him

Let's try an experiment.

Open your iTunes library and type "Arlen" into the search box. Even if you've never heard the name, you might be surprised at what pops up.

Harold Arlen, the Buffalo-born composer whose most famous song is "Over the Rainbow," has a way of surfacing everywhere. The prodigiously talented but vastly underappreciated artist had his hand in more than 300 songs that rear their heads in the repertoires of artists from Billie Holiday to Rufus Wainwright.

But for an unsung hero whose songs resound far and wide, Arlen finally began to get the recognition admirers say he deserved in 2005 -- with a nationwide series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

That recognition will continue Wednesday when "A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story," premieres at MusicalFare Theatre in Snyder. The musical is based on a 2005 article by former Buffalo News reporter Anthony Violanti. The playwright is his daughter, Heather Violanti.

In his article about Arlen's life -- which appeared in The Buffalo News' First Sunday magazine in February 2005 -- Violanti wrote that Arlen's life story was "worthy of a Hollywood movie, with a soundtrack no one would be better prepared to provide than Arlen."

After two years of work and a series of serendipitous events, "A Rainbow Journey" has emerged not as a film but a musical, and one, the elder Violanti says, that will finally reconnect Arlen's legacy to the city and culture that produced him.

"Arlen had no comprehension that he would ever be remembered this way," Violanti said. "The great thing about this is that it just reacquaints Buffalo with Harold Arlen. I don't think people in Buffalo really ever appreciated Arlen, as people throughout the country didn't appreciate him."

But when Violanti -- a longtime Arlen fan -- heard that "Over the Rainbow" had been voted the No. 1 song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America, and the No. 1 film song of all time by the American Film Institute, he set to work on the article. He said he had no comprehension of the feelings it would stir or the overwhelmingly positive reaction it would garner.

In his research, Violanti discovered a reticent and insecure man who was never sure that he would be successful, and who never fully grasped the breadth of his own talent. He traced Arlen's ascent, which began on Buffalo's East Side, took him to New York City's famous Cotton Club and then on to Broadway and Hollywood.

"Once I got going on it, I was just immersed," Violanti said, adding that he got in touch with Arlen's son Sam in New York, along with the cabaret singer Barbara Carroll and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra guest conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who worked with Arlen. "They all had these great stories, and I kind of got rockin' on it. I was just fascinated by Harold Arlen."

He wasn't the only one. A few weeks before the article came out, Violanti called Randall Kramer, the executive and artistic director of MusicalFare Theatre, and suggested that Arlen's story might make an ideal musical.

Kramer, a trained pianist and composer himself, had long been a fan of Arlen and shared the opinion that his identity remained hidden while his music became some of the best-known in American history. The public, Kramer said, already loves Arlen's songs, even if they've never heard of the composer himself.

"They're more invested in them than they possibly know, and yet they don't know who he is," Kramer said. "He never had that big hit show. He never had his 'Oklahoma!' He never had a 'My Fair Lady.'"

> Praise from Berlin

At Arlen's funeral in 1986, the composer Irving Berlin said, "He wasn't as well known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us."

Arlen's agreed-upon musical genius took care of half the process of creating "A Rainbow Journey," but the charge to create a compelling musical -- not just a smattering of songs from Arlen's long career -- nearly kept the show from being produced.

As a journalist not versed in dramatic conventions, Violanti struggled as he tried to churn out the first few pages of the musical.

"I could tell Harold Arlen's story, but I couldn't transfer it to the artistic medium of theater," Violanti said. "It looked like it was going to die when I couldn't write it."

Enter Heather Violanti, stage left.

She had been studying drama in London, where she was taking a play-writing course at the Royal Court Theatre. She'd come home for the holidays, and in his frustration, Violanti asked if she'd be interested in the project. She wrote out a dozen pages before she even knew much about Arlen's life or work, and sent it off to MusicalFare.

"Tony sent it over to me and said, 'What do you think?'" said Kramer. "I said, 'I think she's a writer.'"

Heather Violanti, who had written several plays and earned a degree in dramaturgy from Yale University but had never previously tried her hand at a musical, was excited at the opportunity to delve into Arlen's life, using her father's article as a launching pad. She moved from London to New York City, where she worked on the script and heavily researched Arlen's life.

"I would go to the performing arts library a lot at Lincoln Center, and I would take out all the recordings that they have and listened to them over and over again," Violanti said. "It was really hard for me to get into the musical form because you've got to have songs that move the story forward. You have to build up to the songs, get out of the songs."

It's a process not unlike the one Arlen and his lyricists -- Ted Koehler, Johnny Mercer, Truman Capote, and Yip Harburg -- must have gone through when they wrote the music for movies like "The Wizard of Oz" and the Marx brothers' "At the Circus," or musicals like "St. Louis Woman" and "House of Flowers."

With help and feedback from Kramer, who had previously written a musical about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, the script went through more than 20 major drafts and is still being refined right up to the play's premiere. But Kramer and Violanti were pleased with the process, so much so that they're already collaborating on a musical about the vaudeville days of Father Nelson Baker for MusicalFare's next season.

In an attempt to buck the traditions of conventional musical theater revues, the show is set up not as a chronological survey of events in Arlen's life, but rather as a series of flashbacks extending from the date of his death in April 1986 back to his youth in an East Side home where he grew up.

"There's a trap with new shows, to take the easiest path, which is not always the right path," said Doug Weyand, who plays Yip Harburg, Arlen's lyricist on "The Wizard of Oz." For Kramer, that means making sometimes unexpected musical choices that are as unpredictable as Arlen's music itself.

"I think in theater sometimes we get lazy in how we tell stories. I think in musicals in many ways, even lazier, often, and I don't want us to be like that," Kramer said. As Arlen's music goes, Kramer said, "It's never, ever predictable and yet it's something that stays with you, so it's not so unpredictable that it doesn't last. He walks this really fine line, which is just what great artists do in any field."

Arlen's was a life full of opportunity and moxie, a series of fortuitous events that, along with his talent, led eventually to great success.

> Arlen set himself apart

John Fredo, who plays Arlen in the production, pointed out that Arlen's conflation of Jewish and black musical elements set him apart from everyone else in American popular music. To Fredo, Arlen's days working at the Cotton Club, an institution staffed by the likes of Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters, were likely the happiest days of his life.

"I think the thing that fascinates me the most is the ease of his personality, the ease of what he could create and allowing his art to just speak for himself and just breaking down all those little barriers," Fredo said. "I think that was probably the happiest time for him because it wasn't a lot of pressure, he was just writing great songs and people were responding, and great singers were singing them."

Fredo himself got his start working with the African-American dance community in New York, where he danced with the likes of Maurice Hines and Mercedes Ellington. He was Savion Glover's first tap teacher. He identified with Arlen because his work was so universal and it was never difficult for him to make that cultural jump because of a Buffalo upbringing.

And though great singers continue to sing Arlen's songs even today, he always felt somewhat slighted that his name didn't conjure images of greatness like that of Gershwin or Berlin.

"He just seemed very modest, and he wouldn't be the kind of person who would pound on people's doors, saying 'You've got to remember me!'" said Heather Violanti. Instead, "A Rainbow Journey" will try to do the knocking for him.

> Buffalo's struggles

For Anthony Violanti, the story of Arlen's life speaks on a metaphorical level to the struggles of Buffalo's population, as well as its resilience and cultural diversity.

"Like the city of Buffalo, Arlen never got his just due," Violanti said. "People never give Buffalo the recognition it deserves, and it's a great city, and people never gave Harold Arlen the credit he deserved. In some ways, Buffalonians can be insecure, they get very defensive about Buffalo. I think Arlen was very insecure about his music."

Violanti compared Arlen's cultural upbringing to that of Buffalo musicians Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls -- who grew up in an East Side neighborhood much like Arlen -- and Ani DiFranco, who similarly blends aspects of African-American rhythms and melodies into her work.

"Even though they're generations apart and they come from different musical eras, there's a real connection, it isn't an accident," Violanti said. "I think Buffalo's the kind of place that fosters creativity and also blends cultures."

Fredo agreed, saying that Buffalo creates a kind of "survivalist sensibility," that translates into a unique style of art.

Though many in Buffalo have yet to gain an understanding of Arlen, he has his local fans, including a committee formed in order to bring his name more recognition. The group's president, Sharon Fischer, said they are currently seeking to name Buffalo's performing arts high school for Arlen and counts among their accomplishments ushering Arlen into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, and having a room named for him at the Buffalo Convention Center.

"Anything that furthers an appreciation of his music can only be good," Fischer said. "He was a very modest man, a very humble man, and he was not out for fame and glory, but he never forgot Buffalo and he always had a warmness for this city until the day he died."

WHO: "A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story," conceived by Anthony Violanti and written by Heather Violanti

WHEN: Wednesday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst

TICKETS: Wednesday and Thursday nights, Saturday and Sunday matinees: $28. Friday and Saturday nights: $32

INFO: 839-8540 or www.musicalfare.com

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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