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Today's Song: "Stranger in Paradise"

September 6, 2019

My All-Time Greatest Songs


By Songbook Volunteer: Dick Schwartz


Author's Note: This blog has its origin in my interest – maybe, obsession – with songs. It seems there is usually some song in my head at nearly any time.  When I hear certain songs, I’ll sometimes think or say “Ooh! That’s one of my all-time favorites!” The range of my favorites is broad and diverse. These songs might be popular or obscure, from Broadway or the back roads, simple or complex, ballads or rockers. 


I hope that you will enjoy my blogging exploration of contenders for my all-time-favorite songs and that you’ll be moved to consider and share your own favorites that have held a timeless presence in the soundtrack of your life, or rather, your own personal Songbook. Enjoy!


The latest selection for “My All-time Greatest Songs” is Stranger in Paradise. This song features hauntingly beautiful music and lyrics and has a very complex background story that begins in Russia.


The familiar melody of Stranger in Paradise was originally from a segment of the Prince Igor opera called “Polovtsian (or Polovetsian) Dances, Gliding Dance of the Maidens.” The composer, Alexander Borodin, was a doctor and chemist who worked for nearly 20 years on the opera and left it uncompleted when he died in 1887.


The Borodin melody was incorporated into the 1953 musical Kismet by Robert Wright and George Forest for the song Stranger in Paradise, along with another memorable song, And This is My Beloved. The Kismet composers acknowledged their adaptation, and Borodin was awarded a Tony Award in 1954 along with Wright and Forest.



When the musical Kismet -- based on a 1911 drama of the same name written by Edward Knoblock -- ­­opened on Broadway in 1953, the New York newspapers were on strike. The show’s producers asked Tony Bennett to record Stranger in Paradise as a favor in hopes that it might help boost uncertain ticket sales. Bennett agreed, and it was released as a B-side to his Rags to Riches. Stranger in Paradise shot up the charts, peaking at #2. The only song to top it in the rankings was Rags to Riches.


In 1955, MGM made Kismet into a film directed by Vincente Minnelli. Vic Damone and Ann Blyth performed Stranger in Paradise in the movie, which also starred Howard Keel and Dolores Gray. An earlier Kismet movie starring Marlene Dietrich was released in 1940, but it did not include the now-familiar musical score.



But wait, there’s more to the story of Stranger in Paradise! In 1940, thirteen years before Kismet lit up Broadway and Tony Bennett conquered the Billboard charts, clarinetist Artie Shaw released a record called My Fantasy with songwriting credited to “Whiteman-Meskitt-Edwards” and lead vocal by Pauline Byrne. Shaw’s My Fantasy features the same theme from Borodin’s Prince Igor opera as its lead melody, with a different bridge and lyrics. No attribution was given to Borodin. Did anyone associated with the Kismet score ever hear Artie Shaw’s My Fantasy?


I am fascinated by all the history above. In researching this song, I found that the original “Prince Igor” opera and dances are still performed today by companies around the world, and that was thrilling. Then I saw how many artists had recorded or performed Stranger in Paradise as a vocal solo, duet, or instrumental. That told me that a great number of musicians and music fans must love this song, too. Becoming aware of how many interpretations, recordings, and performances are enjoyed and appreciated is another revelation. I applaud the many resources that help preserve and share musical treasures. Here are some that have put me in touch with the startling story of Stranger in Paradise.


“Stranger in Paradise” notable releases and versions:

  • Doretta Morrow and Richard Kiley (Aug. 17, 1953) – first live performance (in Kismet on Broadway)
  • Four Aces featuring Al Alberts (Nov., 1953)
  • Vic Damone with Richard Hayman and His Orchestra (Nov., 1953)
  • Tony Bennett with Percy Faith and His Orchestra (Nov., 1953)
  • Doretta Morrow & Richard Kiley (Dec., 1953)
  • Tony Martin with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra & Chorus (Dec., 1953)
  • Bing Crosby (1954)
  • Ann Blyth and Vic Damone (1955)
  • Johnny Mathis (1959)
  • Caterina Valente with Werner Muller and His Orchestra (1960)
  • Billy Eckstine (1961)
  • Della Reese (1962)
  • Keely Smith (1962)
  • The Tymes (1964)
  • Lenny Welch (1964)
  • John Gary (1964)
  • Gordon MacRae and Dorothy Kirsten (1964)
  • The Supremes (1966)
  • Jerry Vale (1966)
  • Jim Nabors (1967)
  • Matt Monro (1967)
  • The Bachelors (1967)
  • Isaac Hayes (1977)
  • Sainte Etienne (1992)
  • Elaine Paige (1993)
  • Neil Young (1993)
  • Engelbert Humperdinck (1995)
  • Jack Jones (1997)
  • Petula Clark (1998)
  • Sarah Brightman (2003)
  • Tony Bennett with Andrea Bocelli (2011)
  • Michael Ball and Alfie Boe (2017)


Check back next week for the next installment of "My All-Time Greatest Songs". In the meantime, listen to a few renditions of today's feature, "Stranger in Paradise"!