There are at least a couple of different ways to look at the career of show music composer Charles Strouse, for whom this album of demos and other non-commercial recordings is the eighth in the Library of Congress' Songwriter Series. On the one hand, a popular music historian might lament that a songwriter responsible for two Broadway blockbusters, Bye Bye Birdie (including the standard "Put on a Happy Face") and Annie (including the standard "Tomorrow") and one solid hit, Applause, and who also earns royalties for such songs as "Hard Knock Life" (not included here) and the theme from the TV series All in the Family, "Those Were the Days," isn't better known. On the other hand, that same historian or another might ponder how Strouse, born in 1928 and not enjoying his first hit show until age 31 in 1960, has struggled uphill in his chosen profession, failing much more often than he has succeeded, consistently writing music for projects that took a sour view of the present and looked back nostalgically to the past. It is no surprise that only "Put on a Happy Face" is included here from Bye Bye Birdie, since much of that show's score was a deliberate satire of rock & roll and other late-'50s pop music, intended to be insipid and second-rate (think of Elvis Presley imitator Conrad Birdie's "One Last Kiss," "Honestly Sincere," and "A Lot of Livin' to Do," as well as the sing-song "We Love You Conrad," which actually became a Top 40 hit in 1964 when it was recast as "We Love You Beatles"), although it's hard to see why Strouse couldn't have included a version of the mean-spirited, but amusing "Kids!" And if this were really a "best-of Charles Strouse," "The Telephone Hour," inevitably a choral number, would have to have been included.
But this is not a best-of, even if it does include "Put on a Happy Face," "Tomorrow," "Those Were the Days," and what is arguably Strouse's greatest song (and, it turns out, among his earliest), "Once Upon a Time," the heartbreaking ballad from the 1962 flop All American that, typically, longs for a vanished past. It is, rather, a grab-bag of a songwriter's career, spanning 50 years of homemade recordings (and a few equally off-the-cuff live performances). In addition to his three commercial hits and some respectable near-misses (All American, Golden Boy, It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman), Strouse's résumé includes a considerable number of disasters, including, remarkably, five musicals each of which ran for less than ten performances on Broadway. It turns out, however, that that isn't the half of it, since Charles Sings Strouse rescues lost songs from a number of shows that never even got produced. Many of these songs, rendered in Strouse's enthusiastic but occasionally dodgy tenor, are delightful, including "The Man Who Invented Ice Cream" (lyrics by Sammy Cahn, from the unproduced Bojangles); "When Things Were Rotten" (lyrics by Strouse's usual partner, Lee Adams, from a show of the same name with a book by Mel Brooks, who later adapted it into the non-musical film Robin Hood: Men in Tights); and, apparently not from a show at all, and with zany lyrics by Strouse himself, "Things." There are also cut songs that should have been heard on Broadway, notably "Smashing -- New York Times," originally intended for Applause. And, bringing things up to date, there is a revised lyric for "New Deal for Christmas" from Annie that turns the song into a topical number appropriate for the 2006 Congressional election. That song, which, like the others from Annie, has lyrics by Martin Charnin, may seem surprising for a composer whose sentiments always seemed best expressed in the words of All in the Family's Archie Bunker, originally intended as a satiric character, but really a harbinger for the right-wing resurgence that dominated America in the last two decades of the 20th century and into the 21st. At least, thanks to Charles Sings Strouse, it is finally possible, after 35 years, to figure out what actor Carroll O'Connor was singing in the final verse, after "Didn't need no welfare state/Everybody pulled his weight." The always unintelligible third line is "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great." A LaSalle, Strouse helpfully points out, was a kind of car. Those were the days.