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Apr
13

Rodgers and Hammerstein

Here’s the greatest team in musical theatre history. Their shows are still performed throughout the world and they’ve been embraced by generations and transcend time.

So, let’s take a look at their recorded legacy.

Oklahoma! was the first out of the gate and it was just as big a success as Hamilton today.

Jack Kapp at Decca decided to record the show in what some people call the first American original cast album. (The British were recording cast albums decades before we were). I’ve always thought that no revival cast has ever equaled an original cast. And with Oklahoma! that’s certainly true. The cast album itself suffers from the limitations of sound recording at the time. But the performances are exemplary. That album wasn’t quite complete. The songs “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” “Lonely Room,” “The Farmer and the Cowman,” and the “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” ballet were not recorded. But the album was such a big hit Decca then recorded three of the songs not included on the original album, “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” “Lonely Room,” and “The Farmer and the Cowman.”

There’s many, many more recordings of the score including London casts, Broadway revivals, touring companies, and studio casts but while their fidelity might be better they can’t equal the original.

Another classic musical, Carousel, now given a bowdlerized revival on Broadway, proved that Broadway lightning could strike twice. And Decca grabbed it for recording. Again, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cast was impeccable with John Raitt and Jan Clayton in their career highs. The album cut out some of the dance music and one song, “Geraniums in the Winder.” The sound is a little bit better than that of Oklahoma! but hi-fidelity and recording tape were still a ways off. Still, it’s the best of all the following cast albums.

There’s the London cast with Stephen Douglas (who had done a national tour and was in the 1949 City Center revival). If you think John Raitt was a stiff he was practically Nijinsky when compared to Stephen Douglas. And John Raitt, owner of perhaps the greatest, most versatile Broadway voice of all time, could really act a song. And Iva Withers’ performance at the Drury Lane can’t match the vulnerability or winsome qualities of Jan Clayton.

The 20th Century-Fox soundtrack features Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow. MacRae has a wonderful voice and was excellent as Curly in the film version of Oklahoma! but Bigelow needs to have a dark side and MacRae just doesn’t have it. Fox’s film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel are wonderful but the performances just don’t surpass the originals. However, Alfred Newman’s conducting of the magnificent 20th Century-Fox Orchestra is overwhelmingly beautiful.

Now our fair lads were ready for some experimentation. Note that their previous musicals broke many tropes but they went all out with Allegro. They took their chances and though the show ran for 315 performances (based mostly on the advance sale) it wasn’t an artistic success. Well, that is at the time it wasn’t thought to be. Remember, the world was used to the exotic locales of R&H shows (yes, even Oklahoma!) and real drama. Allegro was a different kind of show. Without social commentary or big moments, and with a Greek chorus commenting on the action, it was too much for the postwar audiences to grasp.

Not helping things at all was the original cast recording. There were a few reasons for that. One, RCA got into the game and did a less than stellar job. If you recall, RCA cast albums were short. Very short. Some were as short as one-half hour! And Allegro is just shy of forty minutes by my unscientific count. Two, no stars. The leads were John Battles and Annamary Dickey and while they were very talented their personalities didn’t make it onto the recordings. And finally, no hit songs really. “The Gentleman is a Dope,” “You Are Never Alone,” and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” didn’t make it onto the Hit Parade.

It’s telling that there was no soundtrack since there was no film. No touring cast recordings. No London cast recordings since there was no London cast.

But wait!! A miracle occurred! In 2009, Masterworks Broadway issued a complete recording with such stars as Audra McDonald, Patrick Wilson, Marni Nixon, Liz Callaway, Laura Benanti, and Norbert Leo Butz. Oh, and the brilliant Larry Blank as conductor. Allegro was rediscovered. And once the songs can be heard within their original context the show becomes close to a revelation. We understand the shock of 1947 audiences sitting in the Majestic Theatre but have a listen to this terrific recording.

South Pacific was the follow-up and it too was a smash hit.

Columbia recorded the original cast recording and it’s the one to beat. There was never a pairing of romantic leads equal to that of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Not only because of their singing but their opposite personas perfectly matched both in the plot and also musically. Note: “This Is How It Feels” the answer to “Wonder How It Feels” was not recorded but no one misses it. That album was a smash hit so, of course, others followed.

RCA wanted to get in the game and they recorded the two understudies to the original stars, Dickinson Eastham and Sandra Deel. Has that ever happened before or since?

And the soundtrack of the hit movie features Mitzi Gaynor in the lead. She’s a little too showbiz to play a girl as corny as Kansas in August. And the rest of the recording consists of a whole bunch of people who dubbed for the actors. Rossano Brazzi was dubbed by the great Georgio Tozzi. And John Kerr, dreamy in the role of Cable, was dubbed by Bill Lee. Even secondary characters were dubbed including Thurl Ravenscroft (best known for How the Grinch Stole Christmas) dubbed Ken Clark, Marie Greene dubbed Candice Lee, and Betty Wand—queen of the demo artists—dubbed Warren Hsieh in a neat trick of sexual fluidity. But the most egregious dubbing was Muriel Smith dubbing for Juanita Hall who was the original Bloody Mary on Broadway and got no complaints about her singing!

Three smash hits (and Allegro). R&H went back to what they did best with The King and I they again had a smash hit.

As far as the cast album (back to Decca) is concerned we’re in a little shakier ground. By all accounts Gertrude Lawrence was brilliant as Anna Leonowens, radiant on stage. But her singing is technically lacking. Plus she was growing ill during the run of the show. Still, some would argue that her acting of the songs trumps that of the limitations of her voice. I agree. Of course, Yul Brynner is brilliant and there are no better Broadway voices than Dorothy Sarnoff and Doretta Morrow. Larry Douglas is also terrific. The Decca sound isn’t as good at Columbia got on South Pacific but it’s an eminently listenable recording. And the cast is superb.

Gotta say that the Fox soundtrack with Marni Nixon’s masterly dubbing of Deborah Karr and those fantastic arrangements played in their stereo majesty by Alfred Newman is a glory to listen to. It’s a tossup between this and the cast album for just listening enjoyment.

In 1953, it was back to RCA and Me and Juliet.

Almost 400 performances at the Majestic Theatre but can you name one song from the score? “Big Black Giant,” “That’s the Way It Happens,” “Keep It Gay?” The hit song from the score was “No Other Love” which was based on a theme Rodgers wrote for the TV documentary series, Victory at Sea. Yes, the album is not the greatest but there’s a lot to enjoy. The songs are good if not great and the overall feeling one gets upon listening is having had a good, undemanding, relaxing time with two songwriters who know what they’re doing. And trust me, that’s enough nowadays.

Pipe Dream. Two years after Me and Juliet the boys opened what would be their least successful musical. The book is what sinks the show. We won’t go into that now.

Yet again a short RCA original cast recording. Helen Traubel is a lot of fun and both Bill Johnson and the star-crossed Judy Tyler do very well in their roles. The songs like “All Kinds of People,” “The Man I Used to Be,” and “All at Once You Love Her” are sweet songs and really, could R&H write a bad song. Well, maybe but these aren’t.

Amazingly. Astoundingly, City Center Encores! mounted a concert version and, lo and behold, it begat a recording!! Will Chase, Laura Osnes, and Tom Wopat do well by the material. And Leslie Uggams shows up too which is always a plus. Given that it’s a live recording in excellent fidelity it’s a lot easier to listen to than the original cast recording. Give it a try.

Following the television version of Cinderella with Julie Andrews, Broadway was treated to Flower Drum Song. A much better score than some of their other recent outings, this show had one big hit, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” which was enthusiastically sung by Pat Suzuki. A strong cast including Larry Blyden, Miyoshi Umeki, and Juanita Hall make the material lots of fun to listen to on the Columbia album, which is very well recorded.

There’s a London cast and a film soundtrack. In the film, many of the original cast recreate their roles and Alfred Newman elevates the music. Of course, films have greatly enlarged numbers in their midst and even when cast albums add instruments for their recordings (which happens more often than you think) they can’t hold a candle to a huge Hollywood orchestra.  Though Columbia issued the OCR it was Decca who grabbed the soundtrack.

And so we come to the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway.

Wait, I seem to remember there’s one last show. A small, little regarded outing that took place somewhere in the Alps.

Ah, yes! The Sound of Music! Heard of it? Well, here was the Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster to beat all their blockbusters. Not on Broadway mind you where it ran 1,443 glorious performances, a great record for the time. But on the big screen. The film version of The Sound of Music, which eventually sold almost 300 million dollars in tickets! Unfortunately, Oscar Hammerstein passed away in 1960 shortly after the original stage production opened.

So, how does the Original Cast Album stack up to the film soundtrack (we’ll ignore the Broadway revivals (ugh!), London companies, and studio casts)? It’s hard to chose. Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel are the real thing. Martin has the simplicity and vulnerability that goes with the role of Maria. Julie Andrews has more of a hard edge though her acting and singing are practically faultless. The original cast overall is excellent and the film is just more so. Much more so. Much much more so. They’re both terrific in their own ways.

So, with four genuine classics including one megahit, why aren’t Rodgers and Hammerstein better regarded? They’ve had more productions, large and small, of their shows. Their shows have real edge (Yes! They do!). People die in their shows. There’s real emotions in their plots and songs.

Have a Rodgers and Hammerstein holiday the next time you’ve got a few hours free and I guarantee you’ll have a swell time and, if you’re open enough, an emotional few hours.

 

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Apr
13

Me and R&H

I was six years old and growing up in suburban Ohio when the writing partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was sundered due to the death of its wordsmith, so the timing was not good. I never had the opportunity to see a new Rodgers and Hammerstein show in its original Broadway production. Indeed, the first R&H show I ever saw on stage was my high school’s production of Oklahoma!, when I was a sophomore. (Roberta McLaughlin was a memorable Ado Annie.)

I did, however, get to see Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot in its national tour, and that experience coupled with my love for the OBCR of My Fair Lady (since age four) made me a Lerner and Loewe fan, with Rodgers and Hammerstein coming in a distant second. (And still being a Lerner and Loewe fan, I must momentarily pause here to say how glorious Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of My Fair Lady is. I saw it last weekend on my birthday, and, under Bartlett Sher’s inspired direction, the show seemed brand new. Don’t miss it.)

It’s not that I didn’t like R&H shows; I played the soundtrack to The King and I almost as much as My Fair Lady’s OBCR. However, as a youth I was extremely competitive, and I tended to rate things hierarchically (the years have changed me, I believe), so it was L&L number one, R&H number two, slipping to three after I heard the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim’s score for Company when I was 16.

It was only in adulthood that I came to realize how groundbreaking the best R&H musicals were, and how greatly the form I loved—the serious book musical, driven by character and story—was indebted to them, and especially to Hammerstein. Yes, Lerner was a wonderful writer, but Hammerstein was the major innovator, indeed a revolutionary, something he became early in his career by writing Show Boat with Jerome Kern but didn’t further pursue until his partnership with Rodgers. This point, by the way, is driven home forcefully in Todd S. Purdum’s new book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution. Its stated intention is to introduce a new generation to their lives and work, and if the book is, being a dual biography, necessarily less extensive than earlier solo tomes about each man, it includes all the major things you need to know coupled with just enough new stories to keep geezers like me interested.

Purdum begins his book on the night of the live national broadcast of R&H’s TV musical Cinderella, starring a 21-year-old Julie Andrews (moonlighting from her job of playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on Broadway). He does so to highlight the cultural importance and influence of R&H: 107 million people watched at least part of the live show on the evening of March 31, 1957, in a country with a population of about 172 million. I, alas, being one week short of turning three, was tucked safely in bed, making me one of the unlucky 65 million who missed it.

I did, however, see the 1965 remake produced for TV by Rodgers, shot on videotape and shown on the evening of Feb. 22, starring Lesley Ann Warren. I was enthralled, and I can still see my 10-year-old self singing “Ten Minutes Ago” at the top of my lungs as I took our trash cans out to the tree lawn after the show, waltzing with them down a snow-dusted driveway. Today, alas, I am not quite so fond of that version, considering it inferior to the iconic original and third behind 1997’s multicultural rendition starring Brandy, with its smart script by Robert L. Freedman. (Oops, there I go again, getting hierarchical.) Surprisingly, considering a starry supporting cast that includes Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, and Whitney Houston, plus the dreamy Paolo Montalban as the prince, it is not only not available digitally; it apparently was never released as a soundtrack CD.

I confess to not being a fan of Douglas Carter Beane’s script for the show’s belated 2013 Broadway debut (see my Backstage review for why), but I did enjoy Laura Osnes in the title role, Santino Fontana as her prince, and the radiant Victoria Clark as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. They and Danny Troob’s gorgeous orchestrations make the OBCR very worth having.

As a teenager and even into my 20s, I knew R&H shows principally from their film versions, which I first encountered on commercial TV bisected by commercials and sometimes cut to fit time slots. I saw The King and I first and fell hard for it, even with commercials and cuts, and, like most of my generation, I adored the film of The Sound of Music upon its release in 1965 (though in subsequent years I could never quite warm to it as a stage piece, as I find the film much better written).

However, I thought the films of Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific were disappointing and clunky and preferred to listen to their OBCRs rather than the soundtracks. I liked the score for Flower Drum Song but found the movie garish and tacky. The 1962 remake of State Fair, which I saw first, was elephantine, coarse, and, quite frankly, stupid. The 1945 original, R&H’s only musical written directly for the big screen, proved a charming corrective, but the score contained only one book song (“It Might as Well Be Spring”), so it was too slight for my taste. Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet were oddities, some nice songs here and there notwithstanding. Even reading their scripts didn’t do much for me. (That said, after seeing Pipe Dream at Encores! in 2012, I rate its score much higher than I used to, especially thanks to the terrific OCR of that production, which is much more complete than the original recording.)

And then there was Allegro. I listened to the extremely abbreviated OBCR a lot and was fascinated by the script, which I read repeatedly at my local library. I was entranced by the idea of the show (depicting a man’s life from birth up to the age of 35 while using a Greek chorus for commentary) but found it hard to imagine in my head, especially with so much music missing. I wasn’t even sure if the chorus’ lines were spoken in unison or sung. (Fortunately, the show finally got a superb complete studio recording in 2009. How I wish that had been available to teenage me.)

Then, in 1978, while I was working off-Broadway as theatre manager and box office treasurer for Equity Library Theatre, we did a production. I was enormously excited by what I saw and heard, and though I could see that the work was not without flaws, I immediately fell in love with Allegro and have remained so ever since. Richard Rodgers came to that production, and he liked it so much that during intermission he asked to meet the cast afterward. He gave a touching and clearly heartfelt speech thanking them for bringing the show back to life. He said that it was the first time he had seen it since it closed on Broadway.

My initial opportunity to experience Carousel on stage came in 1986, when Hammerstein’s son James directed a production at the Kennedy Center, with choreography by Peter Martins, that was clearly aimed at Broadway. Names in the cast included Tom Wopat as Billy Bigelow (I had worked with Wopat before he became a TV star, when he played Curly in Oklahoma! at ELT), an as yet unknown Faith Prince as Carrie Pipperidge, and Milo O’Shea as the Starkeeper (a last-minute replacement for Jack Gilford). I was floored by the show’s dramatic power and the vast reach of its full musical score (to this day there is no complete commercial recording of Carousel), so different from the pale film version. Alas, the critics caviled just enough to scotch a Broadway transfer. In particular, Wopat suffered at the hands of Washington Post critic David Richards (who subsequently wrote for The New York Times), I think possibly because of his Dukes of Hazzard TV fame. I thought he gave a fine performance as Billy. Perhaps I was too green to see the production’s flaws, but I was bowled over by it, and it made me a Carousel convert for life. Director Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 production for Lincoln Center, of course, was an absolute stunner, the proverbial gold standard. (Alas, the OBCR is not available for download, but you can get the 1993 recording of Hytner’s production in its debut with a largely different cast at London’s National Theatre.)

I have not yet seen director Jack O’Brien’s new production, which opened last night on Broadway after my deadline for this column, so I have no idea what the critics said. Reported cuts and changes to the script and score (no “Geraniums in the Winder” and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” giving half of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?” to Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler, and beginning the show in heaven with the Starkeeper, as the film unfortunately does) worry me, but the four leads—Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Alexander Gemignani, and Lindsay Mendez as Billy, Julie, Enoch, and Carrie, respectively—are all excellent singing actors, so there’s hope.

My final conversion to R&H supremacy came late, in 2008, with Lincoln Center’s version of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher (see above and My Fair Lady). It was, surprisingly, my first chance to experience this classic on stage, though I had seen the private film that Rodgers and Hammerstein made of the original London production, starring Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans. Shot in an empty Drury Lane Theatre, it is an odd duck, with the actors stiffly hanging for applause that does not, of course, come, but it does attest to Martin’s magic in the role of nurse Nellie Forbush, which the OBCR doesn’t fully catch, and the at-the-time revolutionary fluidity of Joshua Logan’s staging.

In any event, Sher and his co-stars Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot made a believer out of me. A show I considered to be neither fish nor fowl, half an old-fashioned musical comedy and half a serious musical play, came together organically and played with great power, especially with regard to its anti-racism theme. I had been seriously wrong; South Pacific was a great, and daring, musical. (And if I am ever tempted to doubt that judgment, I just put on my home-burned DVD of the PBS Live From Lincoln Center broadcast of the production.)

As this column has dwelled on the standard R&H canon, I thought I’d end by offering a few lesser-known items for your delectation. First up is Richard Kiley: Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook. This double LP album, released in January 1960,

features 24 songs and contains both standards (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “If I Loved You”) and more-obscure numbers (“So Far,” “Marriage Type Love”). Kiley would have been ideal as Curly McClain, Billy Bigelow, or Emile de Becque, had he been the right age to do them, but the only Rodgers role he got to originate was David Jordan in 1962’s No Strings, Rodgers’ first show after Hammerstein’s death, for which he wrote lyrics as well as music. Kiley’s manly baritone is ideal for the repertoire, and his singing is authoritative and well acted. The musical arrangements, however, are very period. Aside from cast recordings, it is the only album Kiley ever released. I wonder if it helped him get the role in No Strings.

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London gives you a chance to hear original London cast recordings for Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific. Alas, they are only selections, as the English didn’t make complete cast recordings back then. They offer Harold Keel (who eventually became Howard) as Curly, Stephen Douglass (of Damn Yankees and The Golden Apple) as Billy, and Wilbur Evans (of Mexican Hayride, Up in Central Park, and By the Beautiful Sea) as Emile.

Bernadette Peters presents her own spunky take on R&H in the 2002 release Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers and Hammerstein. She sings 12 R&H songs but oddly also includes “Something Good,” written by Rodgers for the film of The Sound of Music after Hammerstein’s death. The CD is worth having just for her rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” written by R&H for a Broadway comedy they produced, Mary Chase’s Happy Birthday, a vehicle for Helen Hayes. Chase is better known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy Harvey.

Rodgers & Hammerstein Overtures came out in 1992 and features renowned conductor John Mauceri leading the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in musical suites from all 11 of their titles, uncut and in the original orchestrations. This disc features the only recording of the overture to Me and Juliet (what’s on the OBCR is actually the brief musical prologue to the musical within the musical), an extended overture to Flower Drum Song created for the show’s national tour, and a special suite for State Fair created by legendary Broadway orchestrator Sid Ramin (West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) just for this recording.

Conversations With 2 Legends of the American Musical Theatre – Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is just that, separate half-hour one-on-one interviews conducted by Tony Thomas. I haven’t listened yet, but how could it be anything other than interesting?

Finally, there’s a real R&H rarity: the 1953 MGM film Main Street to Broadway. For years I wanted to see this movie, in which Rodgers and Hammerstein have a cameo appearance, but I couldn’t find it anywhere, not even on late night TV. The movie’s plot, about an aspiring young man from the Midwest who has written a play for Tallulah Bankhead, is beside the point. The film is stuffed with cameos of New York theatre actors, writers, producers, directors etc., from cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to actors Ethel and Lionel Barrymore to writer-director John van Druten (he helmed The King and I), and even people such as lyricist Dorothy Fields and composer Arthur Schwartz can be spotted in the background in scenes (you’ll see them in the lobby of the Martin Beck Theatre). You really get a sense of the Broadway world of the 1950s.

R&H show up first with Joshua Logan and some chorus girls in an audition scene, after which they are depicted writing the song “There’s Music in You,” meant for Mary Martin to sing in a new Broadway show. Finally, we see Martin perform it in rehearsal as R&H look approvingly on and give some tips. Interestingly, Rodgers is depicted as writing the tune first, something that the team rarely did. The empowerment anthem wasn’t a hit, but it is now a part of the score for Cinderella, sung by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and both Whitney Houston and Victoria Clark did very well by it.

A few years ago I found a DVD of Main Street to Broadway for sale on a boutique website specializing in rare films. I even gave a copy to Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, because he didn’t have it. For fans of R&H, not to mention anyone interested in the history of Broadway, I think it’s a must.

 

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Apr
13

They Were Something Wonderful

We're celebrating all things Rodgers and Hammerstein this week for two reasons. First, there's the new production of Carousel that’s recently opened on Broadway. Second, there's a new book out about the songwriters, Todd S. Purdum's Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, that was just released last week.

Purdum's done a remarkable job of bringing the genesis of the team's shows to life while also contextualizing how they affected musical theater. His astute book also allows readers to understand both men and their complex relationship. It's a terrific read. And so are Erik’s and Ken’s columns!

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • Cockeyed Optimist  - Jenn Gambatese surveys the R&H canon on this 2017 recording, offering up some of their most beloved tunes. There are also a couple of choice numbers that are less frequently recorded, notably "No Other Love" from Me and Juliet.
  • Rosemary Clooney - The Songbook Collection - Clooney's song stylings for Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this set include a delectably swinging rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and a movingly bluesy "Love, Look Away." If you don't know her songbooks, they're very much worth a listen.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


To paraphrase Mr. Hammerstein, it's a grand time for listening with this week's playlist. You'll find a bevy of the songs he wrote with Mr. Rodgers assembled over on Spotify, cuts from cast recordings as well as some swell covers. All in all it's about 90 minutes of music that I hope you'll enjoy.


A marvelous rarity from Frank Loesser's Greenwillow is our free download this week. It comes from Stage Door Records' terrific compilation of Pat Suzuki vocal gems: Singles and Rarities.


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Jesus Christ Superstar - John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered terrific performances on NBC's live broadcast of this Andrew Lloyd Webber--Tim Rice classic. It's fantastic having this soundtrack recording that preserves their work.
  • Cy Coleman - A Jazzman's Broadway - The songwriter-performer lends his distinct jazz sensibility to a trio of musicals on this new release. He covers songs from two Rodgers and Hammerstein tuners (Flower Drum Song & South Pacific), as well as ones from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's Jamaica.

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • "True Love" - Patti Murin is sounding pretty extraordinary on this last of four singles of new songs written for the show that's based on the phenomenally successful movie. It's a show that's garnered some raves. This might be one reason why.
  • "Word of Your Body" - The new NBC series Rise is doing the same thing that Fox's Gleedid: release singles of songs performed on the show. Here's one that's a cover from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening.
  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 70th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.
  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Once on This Island - The current acclaimed revival sounds great on this new cast album from Broadway Records. Hailey Kilgore sparkles in her performance as the show's heroine, Ti Moune, and some of the new orchestrations (courtesy of Michael Starobin, who orchestrated the original production, and AnnMarie Milazzo) are just marvelous.
  • Escape to Margaritaville - The original cast recording of this Jimmy Buffett musical gets its release to coincide with the show beginning previews on Broadway. A top-notch cast and a host of Buffett's feel-good tunes could prove to be a beguiling mid-winter listen.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.
  • The Fiddler Expanding Tradition - Jerry Bock's classic melodies from Fiddler on the Roof sound newly minted on this beautiful new album that showcases the virtuosity of violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who was the principal soloist in the show's most recent Broadway revival.
  • Lena Hall: Obsessed - Peter Gabriel - The second in a series of monthly releases from the Tony Award-winning performer, this new EP features her exceptional interpretations of songs by Peter Gabriel.

Next time around here on BwayTunes I want to start a new occasional feature for the guys: "Favorite Musicals of..." Every so often I'll ask them to pick four or five musicals from a specific decade that are their favorites.

To start, I figure I'll turn the clock back to the 1990s. I'll be curious to see which shows they pick. 

As I thought about the productions that opened back then, one of the first that came to mind was The Will Rogers Follies.

 

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Mar
30

Comedy Songs Tonight

Sunday is April Fool’s Day, and so in recognition of that unalterable fact I am looking at comedy songs. As these are legion, I’ve added some parameters. All must come from book shows, no songwriter can be represented more than once, and the choices are skewed toward lesser-known tunes. Obvious candidates, such as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” from Kiss Me, Kate; “Adelaide’s Lament,” from Guys and Dolls; and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” from West Side Story, are eschewed. Here are 15 from 14 shows, plus a bonus: a totally unknown Stephen Sondheim lyric cut from Do I Hear a Waltz?

“I Cain’t Say No,” from Oklahoma!
OK, this 1943 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II song for the lusty Ado Annie is an exception, but it was obscure to me when I experienced it for the first time in 10th grade in my high school production of the show. I still vividly remember how captivated I was as joke after joke landed perfectly, each one topping the last. It’s proof that Hammerstein could be as funny as the next guy when he wanted to be. I’ve encountered many fine renditions in the intervening years, but nobody beats the original, Celeste Holm, whom I have seen perform the song live, so I know. Although I am partial to Julie Andrews’ brief tussle with it in a medley sung with Carol Burnett on the 1962 TV special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall: She ends with “I cahn’t say ‘cain’t.’” You can see it on YouTube. Priceless.

“You’ll Be Back,” from Hamilton
It seems to me these days that the flat-out comedy song is less in evidence in musicals, particularly the ones with pop- and rock-based scores. Lin-Manuel Miranda, however, is well versed in musical theatre history and knows how potent this form can be. In any event, he certainly employs it with great skill in this song of “romantic” disappointment with America for England’s King George III. It’s an instant classic.

“Miss Marmelstein,” from I Can Get It for You Wholesale
This Harold Rome ditty for a secretary frustrated by her co-workers’ excessive formality put Barbra Streisand on the Broadway map back in 1962 and lightened the increasingly dark second act of this musical drama about an amoral climber in the garment industry. Streisand was up for the Tony for best featured actress in a musical opposite Phyllis Newman, who had her own comic showstopper, “I Was a Shoo-In,” in the musical Subways Are for Sleeping. Consensus at the time was that it was a two-woman race, and Newman triumphed, probably because she had the flashier song and role.

“The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” from Grey Gardens
Opening Act 2 of this 2006 musical about the nonconformist mother and daughter Edith Beales of East Hampton, this song does a lot of work: setting us in the new world of 1973 and the now-decaying mansion that we saw in its 1941 prime in Act 1, characterizing the changes in Little Edie caused by 32 years of increasing isolation from the world, and setting up the dramatic conflict between the Beales and their community. It’s also drawn directly from a monologue in the documentary on which the musical is based. And yet it is also a comedy song in form, thanks to Michael Korie’s smart, intricately rhymed lyric and Scott Frankel’s upbeat, jauntily militaristic music. Christine Ebersole grabbed it and ran, and the result was breathtaking.

“I’m Past My Prime,” from Li’l Abner
This 1956 show based on Al Capp’s famous comic strip about the white trash denizens of Dogpatch, U.S.A., is filled with comedy songs, but I think this duet is my favorite. Heroine Daisy Mae laments her single status at the ripe old age of 17 and worries about her future, as her friend Marryin’ Sam commiserates. Johnny Mercer’s lyric is filled with delightful and surprising rhymes totally appropriate to character (“I ask you who’s elated/When you’s Methuselated?/Like a mummy underground/When you is antiquated/Boys ain’t enchantiquated/They prefers you in the round”) and Gene de Paul’s loping tune charms without ever getting too in your face.

“Dante, Petrarch, and Poe”/“Sur les Quais,” from Lolita, My Love
I recently spent three days at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., doing research in the Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Laurents papers, just for fun, and this ill-fated 1971 musicalization of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious classic was much in evidence. These are two songs but one unbroken sequence in Act 1. In the first, anti-hero Humbert Humbert lectures a suburban Vermont audience on the erotic attractions of nymphets while justifying his desire through the examples of the titular heralded writers, all of whom loved or even married underage girls. Humbert’s scandalized audience eventually flees, and he finds himself alone in the back yard with his landlady, the lonely and rather vulgar widow Charlotte Haze, who has romantic designs upon him. In the first, a patter song that alternates with flights of lyricism, Lerner and composer John Barry perfectly capture Humbert’s mixture of dry academics and obsessive ardor (“My series of lectures exclusively features/Poets enraptured and captured by creatures/Barely pubescent…/Who charm them/Enthrall them/What else is there to call them/But a nymphet?” and “How can you compare a woman’s Chase Manhattan charm/To dusty little toes, a sticky hand, a scrawny arm?”), while in the latter Barry’s sunny can-can melody serves to comically highlight Charlotte’s increasing desperation while ridiculing her pretensions to sophistication (“Tonight my peonies seem like fleur de lis/And across the yard staring down at me/I see Notre Dame sur les quais de Rahmsdale, Vermont” – changing the pronunciation of the flat American A in Ramsdale to make the rhyme). The show has a brilliant score, but book problems and a cashless producer stranded it in Boston. You can hear John Neville and Dorothy Loudon in these two songs, however, thanks to a bootleg sound system tape made just before the Boston closing. Dante and Quais” are both on YouTube.

“Book Report,” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown, Linus, Schroeder, and Lucy each struggle with writing a 100-word book report on “Peter Rabbit” for school in songwriter Clark Gesner’s Act 1 closer for the 1967 off-Broadway megahit. Lucy spits out a literal plot synopsis while meticulously counting her words and padding when she has to (“the very, very, ve-e-e-ry end”), Linus diverts to writing about “Robin Hood,” Schroeder looks for deep meaning and sociological implications, while Charlie Brown feverishly procrastinates. It’s a four-part hoot.

“Repent,” from On the Twentieth Century
Imogene Coca was a riot in 1978 singing this Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Cy Coleman number in which we learn that her character, an “elderly, sweet” wealthy widow named Letitia Peabody Primrose, is in reality a nutty religious fanatic who is slapping stickers saying “Repent” all over the train known as the Twentieth Century Limited. Letitia, however, does have her practical side: “Like you I once was wild/Men shouted, ‘Oh, you kid!’/A life of shame I led/And dirty doings did/Until one night I saw the light/And heard salvation’s call (Ta-ta-da-da-da-da-da)/I’m so glad I didn’t hear it/Until I did it all!” Perhaps she was known as Tish the Dish in her day.

“Changing My Major,” from Fun Home
I don’t know how aware first-time book writer–lyricist Lisa Kron, already a well-regarded playwright, was about the history of the comedy song in musicals, but whether she knew them or not she wrote a damn good one for this adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel. Here middle Alison (the show has three actresses in the role at varying ages) giddily celebrates her sexual awakening in the bed of college girlfriend Joan. As was done for “Dance 10/Looks 3” in A Chorus Line (whose real title is “Tits and Ass”), what would actually be the title of this song, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan,” wasn’t used in the program, to avoid spoiling the laugh. Kron eventually piles up increasingly unexpected rhymes for “Joan” till she gets to the kicker: “I’ll go to school forever/I’ll take out a dementedly huge high-interest loan/’Cause I’m changing my major to Joan.” Alexandra Socha (off-Broadway in 2013) and Emily Skeggs (on Broadway in 2015) both killed with it. You can see Socha on YouTube.

“Wunderbar,” from Kiss Me, Kate
I’ve seen too many productions of this 1948 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in which this number, intended to be an actual waltz from a Viennese operetta, is sung with a generalized nostalgic romanticism. Wrong! It’s all about Lili Vanessi and Fred Graham, divorced from each other but still starring together, competing for attention while sending themselves up, sending each other up, sending the song up, and remembering why they fell in love. Watch Broadway originals Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison (who just celebrated her 103rd birthday) do it in a 1958 TV adaptation of the musical on YouTube (the song starts at 2:12). It’s a veritable one-act play, and, in particular, Drake’s reading of “And you’re mine dear” tells you everything you need to know. Songwriter Cole Porter was in on the joke. His verse begins with “Gazing down on the Jungfrau from our secret chalet for two.” You can’t do that. The Jungfrau is the highest mountain in its range in the Swiss Alps.

“Artificial Flowers,” from Tenderloin
Just as Porter was parodying operetta, songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick were making cheeky fun of the kind of sentimental storytelling ballads so popular in America in the 1890s. Tommy is an amoral social climbing reporter for the cheesy Tatler magazine who wants to join a church choir to get close to a society girl. He auditions with this song about a penniless waif named Annie. I’m especially fond of “With paper and shears/With wire and wax/She labored and never complained/Till cutting and folding her health slipped away/And wiring and waxing she waned.” Amazingly, Bobby Darin had a pop hit with the number when the show opened in 1960. I guess cheap sentiment never goes out of style.

“Summer Is a-Comin’ In,” from The Lady Comes Across
This 11 o’clock number by John Latouche and Vernon Duke comes from a three-performance flop in 1942 that lost its star—Britisher Jessie Matthews, in what was to have been her Broadway debut—out of town to a nervous breakdown. Sung by “four shoppers and ensemble,” I have no idea of its dramatic context, but the four were played by the Martins, a singing group consisting of soon-to-be songwriters Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin (the score for Meet Me in St. Louis) joined by two sisters, Jo Jean and Phyllis Rogers. Also a parody, this time of a medieval folk air, it juxtaposes lighthearted, innocent music with a saucy lyric about sexual awakening. Fourteen years later Latouche repurposed it for Charlotte Rae, who sang it in both her club act and the Broadway show The Littlest Revue.

“The Echo Song,” cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The man who wrote “Comedy Tonight” has penned more comedy songs than you can shake a baton at, but I have chosen this pretty obscure Stephen Sondheim number for a simple reason: I saw it work on stage like gangbusters. Cut from Forum’s original production in 1962, “The Echo Song” was put back in for the musical’s 1972 Broadway revival, starring Phil Silvers, by co–book writer and revival director Burt Shevelove, which I caught pre-Broadway in Chicago. Shevelove removed the courtesan Philia’s “That’ll Show Him” to make room for it, and I think it’s a better choice, although subsequent productions have reverted to the original song stack. In it, Philia prays to her gods for an answer as to whether she can leave Captain Miles Gloriosus, who after all has a contract for her, to run away with her love, Hero. Philia’s gods only answer in echoes, and a hidden Hero struggles to find the right ones to gain himself a bride. The revival, alas, wasn’t recorded, but you can hear Liz Callaway and Steven Jacob sing it on A Stephen Sondheim Evening. I believe it’s the only commercial recording of the song, though Sondheim himself performs it on the sound system recording of his 1971 appearance in the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists Series.

“The Coconut Girl,” from The Girl Who Came to Supper
In this eight-minute Act 2 showpiece, star Florence Henderson, playing a London chorus girl in 1911 named Mary Morgan, acts out the songs and story to The Coconut Girl, a musical in which she is appearing. She is relating all this to the son of her lover, Grand Duke Charles, the Prince Regent of the fictional European country of Carpathia. The sequence has little to do with story or character, but Henderson is very funny as she plays multiple roles, singing in a deep voice for the hero and a high soprano for the heroine, and even performing her harmony part for the song “Six Lilies of the Valley” (“We’re six lilies of the valley”/pause, pause, pause, pause, pause, “Sally”). Noël Coward’s songs deftly skewer the musical comedy styles of the day. The 1963 show was a musical version of Terrence Rattigan’s 1953 hit stage comedy The Sleeping Prince, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, which was made into the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, starring the unlikely pairing of Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. The musical only managed 112 performances. Was it the fault of Harry Kurnitz’s book? Did José Ferrer and Henderson lack chemistry? I don’t know, but Coward blamed them all, plus director-choreographer Joe Layton, in his diary.

BONUS: “Philadelphia!,” cut from Do I Hear a Waltz?
This song has been something of a Holy Grail for me since I discovered its existence back in the early 1970s by reading the Variety review of this 1965 Richard Rodgers–Stephen Sondheim–Arthur Laurents musical’s out-of-town New Haven, Conn., debut. The Northwestern University library had bound copies of Variety issues going years back, and I would go through them specifically to read out-of-town reviews, in part because they always included a song stack, so you could see which numbers had been cut prior to Broadway. Once I moved to New York, I acquired rare demo recordings of many Sondheim obscurities, but this one never surfaced. When I became Laurents’ student in the mid-’80s, I asked him about “Philadelphia!” (What did it do? Who sang it?), but he professed not to remember it at all. I eagerly grabbed my advance copy of Sondheim’s book of lyrics Finishing the Hat and went right to the Do I Hear a Waltz? section, only to discover that it wasn’t included. Was I crazy? Had it even existed?

Yes, it had, as my recent trip to D.C. finally proved. The typewritten lyric, on a page by itself, not integrated into the script, was in Laurents’ papers, and the music manuscript, in the composer’s hand, was in the Rodgers archive. The song happened in Act 2, when heroine Leona Samish, on holiday from America, throws a party for her fellow tourists staying in a Venice pensione to celebrate her new romance with the very married Renato di Rossi. It was replaced by “Perfectly Lovely Couple.” Here is Laurents’ description of the song he wants: “The following is a rough indication of the party scene. A polished draft depends on the musical element, which weaves in and out. This should be based on a song, first stated by the phonograph record and then taken up by the orchestra, which should be a gay ‘novelty,’ nonsense ditty. Or, to be more elegant, a ‘divertissement,’ lyrically irrelevant to the place, the time and the people; a number they can have fun with at the beginning and yet play against later on.” In other words, the partygoers pick up the song from the record and sing snatches of it to each other as they party, eventually with subtextual intent.

The song is a parody of the kind of ditty written as a paean to a geographical place. Rodgers’ melody, which splits the first iteration of the word “Philadelphia” on a booming octave jump, is peppy and boosterish. And undoubtedly an inside joke by the man who wrote the songs “Oklahoma!” and “All I Owe Ioway.” Also, there’s that exclamation point, which Variety did not include but both the typed lyric and music manuscript pointedly do. One note: In the first four lines of the verse, the original choices of cities Mineola and Harrisburg have been crossed out and replaced in handwriting by Tallahassee and San Berdoo. A crucial change, no?

So here is the lyric. Print it out and slip it into your copy of Finishing the Hat.

“Philadelphia!”
Lyric by Stephen Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers
Verse:
I have been to Tallahassee
I have been to San Berdoo
You can keep your Tallahassee
You can keep your San Berdoo

I’ve been back to Sacramento
I’ve been back to Louisville
You can keep your Sacramento
All I’ll ever want is

Chorus:
Philadelphia –
There isn’t a finer spot!
Philadelphia –
The city I love a lot.
Pennsylvania
Is better because it’s got
Philadelphia!
Philadelphia!

Interlude:
I knew a girl from Philly,
Said her name was Ruth.
I used to call her Milly,
Which was closer to the truth.
I lived in Piccadilly,
But I wooed her still.
She said, “You’ll think I’m silly,
But I never could leave Phil-

Second Chorus:
-adelphia.
There isn’t a finer spot!
Philadelphia –
The city I love a lot.
Pennsylvania
Is better because it’s got
Philadelphia!
Philadelphia!
The city of brotherly love!”
 

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Mar
30

April Fool's Day

No, there won’t be any surprise at the end of this column. No ‘I gotcha’ moment that all April Fool’s Day tricksters seem to relish. Rather, this is an admittedly personal look at who are the funniest lyricists. It’s not enough to just write amusing turns of phrase rather the greater skill of actually incorporating jokes into the lyrics. So, here’s my thoughts.

I think there’s four American lyricists who can actually write jokes into their lyrics. But first here’s my list of runners-up. Of course, many of you will disagree and that’s the fun of it.

E.Y. Harburg – Harburg’s wordplay is his most amusing, surprising, whimsical and delightful trait. But he really elicited warm smiles and appreciation rather than laughter. (Just take a listen to Finian’s Rainbow, for instance.)

Though Cole Porter could be arch and witty and although he could really write humorous lyric it depended a lot on characters and sometimes the juxtaposition of the highbrow society with low humor. (“Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in Kiss Me, Kate, anybody?)

Ira Gershwin wrote wonderfully about the joys and pains of falling in and out of love. Songs like “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (in Porgy & Bess) are character songs  and although they’re often quirky they aren’t always funny in a joking way.

Oscar Hammerstein is the most gentle of lyricists. In fact, lyricism, often poetic in nature is his strong suit. He excelled at making regular people say the most incisive and beautifully phrased expressions. He made everyone a philosopher. Think about “Maria” in The Sound of Music. A very humorous list song but not really funny.

So, here’s my list of the funniest lyricists for the American Musical Theatre:

Leo Robin. His lyrics for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and for The Girl in Pink Tights have actual jokes in them. Meaning a set-up followed by a punch line. The former has “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s a very funny song with lots of jokes that also are true to the character of Lorelei Lee. And the neglected score for The Girl in Pink Tights with music by Sigmund Romberg has several numbers full of jokes. “I Promised Their Mothers” and that paean to show business, “You’ve Got to Be a Little Crazy”  are masterful creations that have plenty of wit and surprise.

Dorothy Fields. Along with Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy Fields wrote some of the funniest, character driven songs in musical theatre history. Take a listen to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the underrated By the Beautiful Sea to see just what I mean. “He Had Refinement” owes a lot to Shirley Booth’s exquisite acting and timing but it sets up the joke and then slams the laugh over the footlights to the farthest seat in the theatre. Likewise, “I’d Rather Wake Up By Myself” is another song true to the moment and the character. And here’s Shirley Booth again inspiring Schwartz and Fields.

I know you’ve been waiting for Stephen Sondheim to make the list and of course he does. A Funny Thing and his one contribution to The Mad Show (albeit under a sort of pseudonym—Estaban Rio Nido) are hilarious. Sondheim has it both ways. He amazes us with his craft as well as his immense talents while also keeping us within the farce of Funny Thing. That’s a really difficult thing to pull off.

Those are my three choices. Marshall Barer from Once Upon a Mattress came close as well as a few others. But the whole point is in these perilous times we can all use all the laughs we can get. And that’s why we love the American musical.

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Mar
30

April Drollery

With April Fools Day just around the corner, we're getting slightly silly at BwayTunes. No, Erik and Ken aren't writing those sorts of columns filled with fake news reports. Instead they're talking about the "comedy" that's in musical comedy. Let whimsy abound!

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • Sweet Charity  - Dorothy Fields knew her way around a wry, comic, funny-sad lyric, and because of this had a career that lasted nearly 50 years. This show has one of my favorites of her latter sorts of songs: "Baby, Dream Your Dream," gorgeously delivered by Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver on the original cast album.
  • Little Me - When Carolyn Leigh decided she wanted to, she could rhyme internally to astonishing comic effect. One of my favorites from her in this vein is in this show, it comes in the galvanizing "The Other Side of the Tracks." It's the lyric about sitting on a "fat divan."

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


The goal of this week's playlist is to make you tap your feet, smile, laugh, or maybe even giggle. It's a terrific collection of comedy songs (if I do say so myself), and I'm hoping you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed assembling it.


Before he was writing acclaimed Broadway shows, Cy Coleman was scoring in nightclubs around New York City and on vinyl as a recording artist. This week's free song comes from a new release that celebrates his accomplishments as a jazz performer.


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • "True Love" - Patti Murin is sounding pretty extraordinary on this last of four singles of new songs written for the show that's based on the phenomenally successful movie. It's a show that's garnered some raves. This might be one reason why.
  • "Word of Your Body" - The new NBC series Rise is doing the same thing that Fox's Gleedid: release singles of songs performed on the show. Here's one that's a cover from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening.

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 70th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.
  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Once on This Island - The current acclaimed revival sounds great on this new cast album from Broadway Records. Hailey Kilgore sparkles in her performance as the show's heroine, Ti Moune, and some of the new orchestrations (courtesy of Michael Starobin, who orchestrated the original production, and AnnMarie Milazzo) are just marvelous.
  • Escape to Margaritaville - The original cast recording of this Jimmy Buffett musical gets its release to coincide with the show beginning previews on Broadway. A top-notch cast and a host of Buffett's feel-good tunes could prove to be a beguiling mid-winter listen.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.
  • The Fiddler Expanding Tradition - Jerry Bock's classic melodies from Fiddler on the Roof sound newly minted on this beautiful new album that showcases the virtuosity of violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who was the principal soloist in the show's most recent Broadway revival.
  • Lena Hall: Obsessed - Peter Gabriel - The second in a series of monthly releases from the Tony Award-winning performer, this new EP features her exceptional interpretations of songs by Peter Gabriel.
  • 42nd Street - One of the biggest hits in London right now is a new production of this classic tale about an understudy who becomes a star. The Al Dubin-Harry Warren tunes sound particularly sparkling on this just-out cast recording.
  • Between Yesterday and Tomorrow - Originally created as a song cycle to be performed by Barbra Streisand, this piece by composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman has gone unrecorded for decades. Natalie Dessay has remedied that, performing it with grace and beauty on this sumptuous first-ever recording.
  • The Band's Visit - Just out today is the elegant original cast recording of David Yazbek and Itamar Moses' new hit musical. Fusing sinuous melodies with Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms and harmonies and finished with hints of jazz, Yazbek's superb score is unlike any you've ever heard in a Broadway show.
  • Hamlisch Uncovered - Some never-recorded gems from the late Marvin Hamlisch are collected on this new album. Among the talented performers on the recording are Tony winners Kelli O'Hara and Randy Graff. The songs come from shows as varied as Sweet Smell of SuccessSmile, and Ballroom.

The new Broadway revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Carousel will inspire Ken and Erik's columns in a couple of weeks.

Beyond that we're taking the time to discuss the men who gave us this show, Oklahoma!, and The Sound of Music (to name just three) because there's also a great new book about them, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, which is just about to be released.

So to get you in the mood for all things Rodgers and Hammerstein, why not take a listen to Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters as she delivers some of their best-loved songs on her Loves album dedicated to them?

 

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Mar
16

Eire’s Musical Fare

Amazingly, after nearly four years of columns here at BwayTunes, we have never done a salute to the Irish in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. So here’s a look at some of the ways Ireland and musicals have intersected over the years. I’m thinking shows, songs, and artists.

Editor Andy Propst mentioned Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s landmark drama Juno and the Paycock, in his newsletter announcing this topic, but I’m including it here simply because I’m such a fan of the score. Alas, Joseph Stein’s book and Blitzstein’s songs never meshed well enough for the 1959 show to succeed. In 1992 director Lonny Price worked with Stein and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh on a revisal at the Vineyard Theatre, with Anita Gillette and Dick Latessa as the battling Boyles. The production had much to offer but didn’t solve enough of the problems. However, an earlier attempt at revising the musical was made in 1976 by adapters Richard Maltby Jr. and Geraldine Fitzgerald (who also played the title role opposite Milo O’Shea as her husband), with additional lyrics from Maltby as well and direction by Arvin Brown, then artistic director of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, where the production debuted. , It was even retitled as Daarlin’ Juno, but mixed reviews nixed a future for it. However, a script and complete live tape exist, and I think they reveal that a lot of smart work was done. If any further attempt is made to fix Juno, I’d start with the 1976 try.

Finian’s Rainbow is, of course, the first musical that came to mind when considering this topic, and Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” is probably the most memorable Irish song ever written for the Great White Way. I initially encountered Finian’s at the ripe old age of 14 via its 1968 film version, and that makes the soundtrack recording my go-to disc for this score, especially for the superb performance of Petula Clark as Sharon McLonergan, though I am also partial to the recording of the 2009 Broadway revival (a production I reviewed very favorably for Backstage.) That said, the role’s originator, Ella Logan, is a commanding presence on the OBCR. Just recently I found a rare TV appearance by Logan on YouTube in which she sings “Look to the Rainbow.” It dates to 1954, a mere seven years after she created the part, and while her highly stylized performance would be unlikely to fly today, I bet it worked like gangbusters in 1947, rocketing right to the last row of the balcony at the 46th Street Theatre.

And speaking of memorable Irish songs on Broadway, who arrives in my brain but George M. Cohan. If ibdb.com is correct, he was involved with no fewer than 106 Broadway productions in a career spanning from 1901 to 1940, in the capacities of producer, director, songwriter, playwright, or star (sometimes all at once). Not one of his many hit musicals has ever received a cast recording (though you can hear Cohan and his contemporaries singing some of his songs on George M. Cohan: Rare Recordings), but I grew up knowing such Irish-flavored tunes as “Mary” (“Plain as any name can be”), “Harrigan” (“Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me/Divil a man can say a word agin’ me”), “Down by the Erie” (“Poor John O’Leary/I’m afraid you’ve lost your gal/For she’s left you flat, my dearie/By the Erie Canal”), and “Nellie Kelly, I Love You” (“The boys are all wild about Nellie/The daughter of Officer Kelly”). Of course, Cohan’s big four—“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Over There”—are still immediately recognizable today, more than a century later. In 1969 I saw the great Joel Grey play Cohan at Broadway’s Palace Theatre in the bio-musical George M!, whose cast album is a grand introduction to his catalogue. Incidentally, Grey recently reprised that performance, tapping away as a surprise guest in the musical revue Hey, Look Me Over! at Encores! Not bad for 85.

Cohan not only wrote memorable songs; he was a memorable character in his own right. So who are a few memorable fictional Irish characters from musicals? To start, there’s Dolly Gallagher Levi, an Irish lass widowed by her Jewish husband, currently treading the boards in the person of Bernadette Peters in director Jerry Zaks’ revival of Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre. Then there’s Arvide Abernathy, who gives granddaughter Sarah Brown some sage romantic advice in Frank Loesser’s lovely “More I Cannot Wish You” in Guys and Dolls. Rapscallion lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago is of Irish heritage, as is newsboy Jack Kelly in Newsies, though neither sings about it. Aggie and Rooster Hannigan, however, do employ a bit of a brogue when recalling words of wisdom from their sainted Irish mother in Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse’s “Easy Street” from Annie. Pert Kelton’s Widow Paroo, on the other hand, in both the stage and screen versions of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, sings with an accent as thick as a shillelagh in “Piano Lesson” and “Gary, Indiana” (the latter only in the film).

Irene O’Dare, in the person of Debbie Reynolds, gets a whole song celebrating that she’s “An Irish Girl,” written specifically for the 1973 Irene revisal by Otis Clements (lyric) and Charles Gaynor (music). On screen Marjorie Main’s salt-of-the-earth Katie the maid went songless in Meet Me in St. Louis, but that wouldn’t do when you have Betty Garrett playing the role, so Hugh Martin wrote “A Touch of the Irish” for her in the 1989 stage adaptation. Anthony Newley’s Irish accent as “cat’s meat man” Matthew Mugg in the 1967 film musical Doctor Doolittle proves as fickle as Dick Van Dyke’s infamous stab at a cockney one in Mary Poppins as Newley delivers such Leslie Bricusse songs as “My Friend the Doctor,” “After Today,” “Where Are the Words,” and the title song. Alas, the soundtrack CD is long out of print and used copies are pricey, but La-La Land Records recently released a wonderfully complete deluxe two-CD set of the soundtrack in a limited edition of 3,000 units that I highly recommend to fans of this score.

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green had great fun with the stereotype of the Irish cop in “Darlin’ Eileen” from Wonderful Town (“Mother’s a Swede and Father’s a Scot/And so Irish I’m not/And I never have been./Hush you Eileen/Hush you Eileen/Fairest Colleen that ivver I’ve seen/Don’t ya give me none o’ that blarney/Ya come from Killarney/Ye’re Irish Eileen!”) Finally, there’s the not-so-familiar Thomas Doyle, a penniless bum turned burlesque comic in the 1985 flop Grind, directed by Harold Prince, which boasts a strong score by Larry Grossman (music) and Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics). Timothy Nolen does well by the haunting “Katie, My Love,” in which Doyle expresses his regret at continuing to live after the deaths of his wife and young son, and by the powerful “Down,” in which we discover that his work as an Irish terrorist was responsible for those deaths.

Three great Irish playwrights—Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, and Dion Boucicault—had their work turned into musicals. Anne Croswell (book and lyrics) and Lee Pockriss (music) metamorphosed Wilde’s The Importance Being Earnest into Ernest in Love, an off-Broadway hit in 1960 at the Gramercy Arts Theatre (currently the home of Repertorio Español), while no less than Noël Coward came a-cropper trying to musicalize the same playwright’s Lady Windermere’s Fan as After the Ball, which ran in the West End in 1954 for only 188 performances. A revised version, however, did play at Manhattan’s Irish Repertory Theatre in 2004, directed by Tony Walton. Composer-lyricist Bob Merrill wrote the scores for two Broadway shows derived from O’Neill plays, 1957’s New Girl in Town and 1959’s Take Me Along, both box office hits. The former was based on the 1921 Pultizer Prize–winning drama, Anna Christie, and the latter was a musicalization of O’Neill’s only comedy, 1933’s Ah, Wilderness! Boucicault’s show is the most obscure of them all: the 1963 off-Broadway success The Streets of New York, based on the hit 1869 melodrama of the same title. Barry Alan Grael (book and lyrics) and Richard B. Chodosh (music) came up with a clever and tuneful score that captures the correct tone without resorting to camp. The OCR from AEI is not available digitally, but you can get the CD at Amazon.com. The show ran for 318 performances at the Maidman Theatre on 42nd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues, which was later rechristened the John Houseman Theatre before being demolished in 2005, eventually making way for the Pershing Square Signature Center theatre complex and apartment building.

I’d like to close with a look at two Irish-related musicals of which I am inordinately fond. The first is Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s A Man of No Importance, which played off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater for 124 performances in the fall of 2002. Based on the wonderful 1994 film of the same name, it tells the tale of Alfie Byrne, a gay but closeted bus conductor in 1963 Dublin who lives with his unmarried older sister and is obsessed with putting on an amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Alfie is also hopelessly in love with his bus driver, the considerably younger and unfortunately heterosexual Robbie Fay. Roger Rees, Faith Prince, and Steven Pasquale all gave superb performances in the leading roles (played in the film by Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, and Rufus Sewell), as did Sally Murphy as a young woman with a secret whom Alfie casts as Salome. The Ahrens and Flaherty score is top drawer and dovetails beautifully with McNally’s perceptive book. The show is a real charmer, both funny and moving. It cries out to be rediscovered.

My Vaudeville Man! is a deft and delightful look by Jeff Hochhauser (book and lyrics) and Bob Johnston (music and lyrics) at the early life of Broadway hoofer Jack Donahue, who hit the big time starring on Broadway in three back-to-back hits: 1925’s Sunny (opposite Marilyn Miller), 1928’s Rosalie, and 1929’s Sons o’ Guns (for which he also co-wrote the book), before alcoholism took his life in 1930. Produced off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company in 2008, My Vaudeville Man! is a two-hander, the only other character on stage being Jack’s very Irish mother, who doesn’t want to see him throw his life away on the show business. The musical begins in 1910, when 18-year-old Jack sneaks away from home to take his first professional job, on a vaudeville tour of New England. A host of other characters appear through the eyes of our two leads, and considerable dramatic ingenuity is employed in the telling of the tale. Numbers such as Act 1’s “Picnic in the Kitchen,” in which Jack remembers how his mother dealt with family financial setbacks due to his father’s drinking, and Act 2’s “The Tap Drunk,” in which Jack tries to beat four other hoofers in a bar to win a $25 pool, are standouts. The latter served as a remarkable tour de force for Shonn Wiley in a triple triumph of acting, singing, and dancing. Karen Murphy brought yards of charm to “Mud” (short for “mother”) Donahue, then turned around for a dramatic tour de force in Act 2 with “So the Old Dog Has Come Home,” sung when her abusive husband returns from his longest bender yet. I confess that I’ve known Johnston since he was a classmate at NYU, and Hochhauser is a good friend of many years standing, but that has no bearing on my opinion of My Vaudeville Man! As many a friend of mine will attest, don’t ask Erik what he thinks unless you really want to know, because he’ll tell you.

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Mar
16

The Irish, the Musicals

The Irish have always had a strong theatrical tradition in their lives and in their theatre. And during the great Irish migration at the turn of the 19th Century they brought their dramatic traditions with them.

But even before then and later, soon, after the end of the Civil War, the Irish took a foothold in the American theatre.

Dion Boucicault’s play Arrah-Na-Pogue premiered in 1865, 1869, and 1903. Though it was a play it did have interpolated songs by Andrew Mack as composer and lyricist with Boucicault himself writing the occasional lyric. But this was really a play with music though it was the first stirrings of how songs could be integrated into a drama.

Among the first and greatest of Irish dramatists and performers were the team of Harrigan and Hart. Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart were born in New York and Massachusetts respectively, and their early musical comedies celebrated life in the tenements of the Lower Manhattan. Together with the London-born composer Edward Braham, Harrigan (writer of the book and lyrics) created the beginnings of musical theatre. In 1873, they wrote the song “The Mulligan Guard” which would later form the basis of a series of Mulligan musicals, beginning with The Mulligan Guards Picnic in 1878 and followed it with 16 more musicals in only seven years (a couple of the songs from these can be heard on Don’t Give the Place a Bad Name). It’s important to note that the shows featured characters who were Irish and German immigrants as well as Black characters. Hart died 1891, only 36-years-old. Edward Harrigan went on to write plays and musicals and performed in them until his death in 1911. In 1985 a musical was presented on Broadway, Harrigan ‘n Hart but it was a fast failure.

1906 saw the debut of Charles E. Blaney’s musical Mr. Blarney from Ireland with songs by Fiske O’Hara. But five years before that, Providence born Irish-Catholic George M. Cohan wrote his first musical comedy, The Governor’s Son. Book, music and lyrics were by Cohan, and he was featured in the show along with his parents and sister. Cohan’s shows, including his best-known one, Little Johnny Jones, celebrated Irish Americans and continued the refinement of Broadway musical comedy that had began with Harrigan and Hart. Cohan wrote, produced and starred in over 50 plays and musicals and wrote many popular songs including his most famous song, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Or is the most famous, “Over Here?” Or… well so great was his success it’s difficult of name just one song as his best. Cohan fared better than Harrigan and Hart with a musical based on his career, George M!

Victor Herbert, the great Irish-born composer wrote his paean to Ireland with Eileen written with lyrics by Henry Blossom. Based on the Irish Rebellion of 1875, this comic-opera was a fast failure mainly because of Blossom’s libretto. But its score contains many riches.

More recent musicals with ties to Ireland include those based on great works of Irish theatre.

J. Hartley Manners’ 1912 play Peg o’ My Heart inspired a popular song of the same title by Fred Fisher and Alfred Bryan. It was interpolated into the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913 and became a huge success. The play itself was adapted into the 1984 British musical Peg (not to be confused with Peggy Lee’s one-woman show) with a score by David Heneker. It never came to Broadway.

A fish out of water plot is often a success. And the 1919 musical Irene by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy was a gigantic success playing 675 performances—a  remarkable run then (and even now). The future standard “Alice Blue Gown” was the hit of the show. The title character is an Irish immigrant who arrives in New York and has a brush with high society. The show was revived in 1973 starring Debbie Reynolds. And a London revival in 1976 ran almost 1,000 performances.

Sean O’Casey’s classic Juno and the Paycock was developed into Marc Blitzstein’s 1959 musical Juno. Despite a wonderful score, the show was closed after only 16 performances. But the Columbia recording of the score has brought it newfound respect.

The greatest of all Irish-themed musicals is 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow featuring a brilliant score by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg. The totally original book by Harburg and Fred Saidy is a delight, and the cast album with David Wayne and Ella Logan is a joy from start to finish. No wonder the show has become a true classic.

Charles O'Neal's 1949 novel The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin became Three Wishes for Jamie in 1952 with a score by Ralph Blane. Jamie is granted three wishes by the Queen of the Fairies. Unfortunately, he didn’t wish the musical be a success, and it closed after only 92 performances. The show was in trouble from the start and the whimsy that supported Finian’s Rainbow made Jamie a pale imitation.

Happy as Larry by Mischa and Wesley Portnoff and book and lyrics by Donagh MacDonagh was a three performance flop in 1950.

We all know about shows with excellent scores and so-so libretti. And 1959’s Donnybrook! is one such musical. Johnny Burke wrote the totally charming score, but Robert E. McEnroe’s book, based on Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, is a letdown. The production lasted only 68 performances. Lucky for us the original cast album has recently been released on CD.

Here’s a famous or infamous failure, Kelly from 1965. Moose Charlap and Eddie Lawrence wrote a terrific score for this legendary flop that played only one performance. The whole sordid history of this one performance disaster was told in a Saturday Evening Post article that laid all how everything that could go wrong with a musical went wrong. But the score is strong with many fine songs.

John Millington Synge’s 1907 drama The Playboy of the Western World was adapted into the musical Christy (1975) had music by Larry Blank and lyrics by Bernie Spiro. The less said the better.

2002’s A Man of No Importance was based on the film of the same name. Despite a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrence McNally, the show only played its initial run at Lincoln Center. It followed a theatre troupe in Ireland that wishes to produce a play based on “Salome.”

2012’s Once was an audience pleaser running over 1,000 performances. It followed the success of the film of the same name that was also a sleeper hit. The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova filled out the songs they wrote for the original film. It was a great hit with audience members, especially those who went on stage before the show started to have a beer from the show’s pub set.

The Irish have contributed mightily to Broadway for over 100 years of musical theatre. They were there at the beginning and continue to have an influence on today’s theatre scene.

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Mar
16

Irish Eyes Are Smiling

To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, which we've never done before, I've asked Erik and Ken to write about all things Irish and musical theater in their columns. They've come up with two terrific approaches to this, and some of the shows and characters they've latched onto might surprise you!

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • You're a Grand Old Flag  - The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Rick Benjamin bring period authenticity to George M. Cohan's work, which pulses with an old-time Americana sound and at the same time has a buoyancy befitting his Irish ancestry.
  • Legally Blonde - This musical about California native Elle Woods heading to Harvard doesn't immediately shout "Ireland." Nevertheless, one of the funniest numbers in the show has the country's name for a title. It's her hairdresser's paean to the land where her new age music comes from, and it's beautifully delivered by the ever-so-talented Orfeh.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


You'll be ready for the "wearing o' the green" after listening to the songs I've put into this week's playlist. It's just about an hour of tunes compiled from Ken's and Erik's columns, along with some other goodies thrown in for good measure!


Christmas may be a ways off, but it's never too early to take a listen to a heartwarming new tuner like Kris Kringle the Musical. We've got a free track for you from this charming new studio cast recording. 


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 80th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Once on This Island - The current acclaimed revival sounds great on this new cast album from Broadway Records. Hailey Kilgore sparkles in her performance as the show's heroine, Ti Moune, and some of the new orchestrations (courtesy of Michael Starobin, who orchestrated the original production, and AnnMarie Milazzo) are just marvelous.
  • Escape to Margaritaville - The original cast recording of this Jimmy Buffett musical gets its release to coincide with the show beginning previews on Broadway. A top-notch cast and a host of Buffett's feel-good tunes could prove to be a beguiling mid-winter listen.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.
  • The Fiddler Expanding Tradition - Jerry Bock's classic melodies from Fiddler on the Roof sound newly minted on this beautiful new album that showcases the virtuosity of violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who was the principal soloist in the show's most recent Broadway revival.
  • Lena Hall: Obsessed - Peter Gabriel - The second in a series of monthly releases from the Tony Award-winning performer, this new EP features her exceptional interpretations of songs by Peter Gabriel.
  • 42nd Street - One of the biggest hits in London right now is a new production of this classic tale about an understudy who becomes a star. The Al Dubin-Harry Warren tunes sound particularly sparkling on this just-out cast recording.
  • Between Yesterday and Tomorrow - Originally created as a song cycle to be performed by Barbra Streisand, this piece by composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman has gone unrecorded for decades. Natalie Dessay has remedied that, performing it with grace and beauty on this sumptuous first-ever recording.
  • The Band's Visit - Just out today is the elegant original cast recording of David Yazbek and Itamar Moses' new hit musical. Fusing sinuous melodies with Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms and harmonies and finished with hints of jazz, Yazbek's superb score is unlike any you've ever heard in a Broadway show.
  • Hamlisch Uncovered - Some never-recorded gems from the late Marvin Hamlisch are collected on this new album. Among the talented performers on the recording are Tony winners Kelli O'Hara and Randy Graff. The songs come from shows as varied as Sweet Smell of SuccessSmile, and Ballroom.

April Fool's Day will be rolling around just a couple of days after you get the next newsletter.

While I'd prefer the guys not do the sort of April Fool's columns that are filled with false information and fake news (we get enough of that year-round, right?), I do want them to have some fun. 

So I've just thrown the idea of joking and fun at them, and we'll have to wait to see what they come up with. In the spirit of that I thought of a terrifically playful song title to leave you with: "April Fooled Me," a tune by Jerome Kern with a lyric by the inimitable Dorothy Fields. You can find it on Rebecca Lucker's album I Got Love.

 

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Mar
02

Revueing the Situation

Book musicals have always been my thing, even though I have created two musical revues in the course of my theatrical career (neither of which I’ve considered eligible here), so when asked to come up with a list of my 10 favorite musical revues, I initially thought, “Will I be able to find a full list?” To my surprise it proved hard to whittle it down to 10, and so I’ve included another 10 honorable mentions as well. Another surprise? I’ve seen 16 out of 20 in performance! Here they are, in alphabetical order.

Closer Than Ever
When I saw this collection of smart and perceptive songs by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire during previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre in October of 1989, I liked it well enough but didn’t think it surpassed their earlier revue, 1977’s Starting Here, Starting Now. That show had focused on young people discovering love and their life’s purpose, and at 35 I think that still spoke more to me than did Closer Than Ever’s songs about mid-life crises and concerns. However, when I saw the York Theatre Company’s 2012 revival, I was immediately and thoroughly hooked. Perspectives change, eh?

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter
I discovered the LP of this 1965 Ben Bagley–produced off-Broadway show while in high school and fell in love with it immediately. A terrific cast of top Broadway talent—Harold Lang, William Hickey, Carmen Alvarez, and Elmarie Wendel—backed up star Kaye Ballard on 12 lesser-known Cole Porter songs full of sass, sex, wit, and wicked double entendres. And the finale was a wonderfully creative medley of Porter hits strung together by surprising and very funny lyrical segues. I got to see a production in Chicago in the winter of 1974 while attending Northwestern University, and the show, which contained many additional songs not on the OCR, was even more fun. When the recording came out on CD in 1991, it included 16 of those other tunes, taken from live tapings made during the revue’s 273-performance run, including cuts by such cast replacements as Bobby Short, Tammy Grimes, Danny Meehan, and Dody Goodman. Incidentally, the theatre it played, the Square East, went on to become the legendary music venue known as the Bottom Line in 1974. It closed in 2004 and New York University classrooms now occupy the space. The OCR has never been available digitally, and I’m afraid the CD is long out of print, but used copies of it and the LP can be found at Amazon.com.

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
I caught this anthology of the great director-choreographer’s Broadway work during previews in January of 1989, which means I got to see Charlotte d’Amboise sing and dance the number “Dreams Come True,” from Billion Dollar Baby, before Robbins cut it before opening. The great thrill I got from this show came from being able to see work that I had only been able to read about in its original staging, including sets and costumes (though the choreography for some pieces, such as On the Town’s “New York, New York” and “Times Square Ballet,” had been lost, so Robbins had to re-create it in the spirit of the original). I don’t think any director-choreographer has surpassed Robbins’ work in musical theatre, and this show laid that out for all to see. It won the Tony for best musical but, due to its fiendish complexity, doesn’t often get produced. However, the St. Louis Muny will be doing it from June 11–17, in what is billed as the show’s “first major staging since leaving Broadway in 1990.”

New Faces of 1952
Producer Leonard Sillman began this Broadway franchise that put a spotlight on new talent in 1934, when he wrote the sketches for and appeared in New Faces of 1934. He took over as producer for the 1936 edition and continued in that role for five more incarnations: 1943, 1952, 1956, 1962, and 1968. However, by far the most successful was ’52, which featured such future stars as Alice Ghostley, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham, and Paul Lynde, sketches principally by Mel Brooks and Graham, and songs by, among others, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Siegel and June Carroll, Michael Brown, and Murray Grand. It ran for 365 performances and was made into a CinemaScope motion picture, featuring the original cast, in 1954, which is how I got to see it (you can stream it on Amazon Prime or buy the DVD). Highlights include Ghostley’s riotous bout with sexual repression in Harnick’s “Boston Beguine,” Kitt smoldering on Siegel and Carroll’s “Monotonous,” Carroll debuting the future Grand cabaret standard (with a lyric by Elisse Boyd) “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” and the full company romping through Brown’s hoedown tribute to “Lizzie Borden” (“Oh, you can’t chop your momma up in Massachusetts/Not even if you’re tired of her cuisine”).

Oh Coward!
Noël Coward made his final public appearance attending a performance of this long-running off-Broadway musical revue saluting his work on Jan. 14, 1973, looking frail on the arm of Marlene Dietrich as they entered the New Theatre on East 54th Street. I got the cast recording as soon as it was released, and it served as an overdue introduction to the songs of the Master (there weren’t a lot of recordings of Coward songs available in the early ’70s). I virtually memorized it, and I was overjoyed when I finally got to see it in a first-rate 1986 Broadway revival featuring original star, director, and creator Roderick Cook backed up by the estimable Catherine Cox and Patrick Quinn (oh, for a recording of that!). There was a shortened video version made for Showtime in 1980 with Cook, Jamie Ross, and Pat Galloway that’s now very hard to find (I did!), and the LP on Bell Records never even made its way to CD (except in my house), but used copies can be found at Amazon.com.

Oh What a Lovely War
Director Richard Attenborough’s star-studded 1969 film version of this 1963 London musical revue skewering the monstrous folly known as World War I introduced me to the property. I was so stunned by it that I went back the following weekend to see it for a second time. After that it disappeared from view, until I had the chance to catch it in a one-night-only screening at Lincoln Center in the mid-’80s. Eventually I managed to videotape a cable TV broadcast, and I finally was able to purchase it on DVD some years after that. The revue, created by experimental director Joan Littlewood and her company of actors known as Theatre Workshop, interweaves historical facts with satirical parodies of patriotic war songs written by the soldiers who fought in the trenches, and it is both blistering and deeply moving. It ran for 501 performances in London, and David Merrick brought it to Broadway in 1965 for a 125-performance run. A few years ago the second half of a TV broadcast in the Netherlands in the mid-’60s, performed in English by members of Theatre Workshop, surfaced (the first half, alas, is missing), so I actually have seen some of the stage production. There was no OBCR, but the London cast recording did come out briefly on CD from Must Close Saturday Records and now goes for a lot at Amazon.com but considerably less on eBay. The excellent film soundtrack, alas, exists only on LP, but you can stream the movie on Amazon Prime or buy the DVD.

The Show Goes On
This “and then we wrote” revue dedicated to the work of and starring composer Harvey Schmidt and playwright-lyricist Tom Jones opened off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company on Dec. 17, 1997, and ultimately ran for 88 performances, extending its original limited run due to popular demand. Act 1 covered their commercial material, while Act 2 was devoted to more-experimental work. The songwriters performed alongside three singing actors: JoAnn Cunningham, Emma Lampert, and J. Mark McVey, and the results were immensely entertaining. DRG Records recorded the show live in performance, and if the single CD isn’t the complete show, it amply illustrates its pleasures, particularly in capturing much of Jones’ witty and insightful narration on the nature of their creative process. (Not available for download, you can stream or buy the CD at Amazon). Highlights include three different title songs for I Do! I Do!; three star-turn songs for the same slot tailored to three different divas for 110 in the Shade; a wonderful topical cabaret song written for the 1958 Julius Monk revue Demi-Dozen, “Mr. Off-Broadway”; and a wickedly funny tribute to the results of embalming, “Wonderful Way to Die,” from 1975’s The Bone Room (their only produced show as of 1997 not to get a cast recording, you can read The New York Times’ review here). Simultaneous with the show, Limelight Editions published Jones’ how-to book Making Musicals, which I highly recommend to any of you out there hoping to do so.

Side by Side by Sondheim
I caught this show in London’s West End twice in August of 1976 during a two-week stay, even though I already knew practically every song in it. English audiences were not familiar with Stephen Sondheim at all at that point, despite Company having been done in the West End a few years earlier, and I got a tremendous high from their enthusiastic, astonished responses. Performers David Kernan, Millicent Martin, and Julia McKenzie were top-notch, and host Ned Sherrin’s self-written patter, largely skewering celebrities and politics, was a delight. It’s not on the recording, but that’s probably just as well, as the references would now undoubtedly be plenty dated and rather obscure. One song I didn’t know, “I Never Do Anything Twice,” written for but cut from the 1976 Sherlock Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, still lives in my head today as a great theatrical memory, thanks to Martin’s smashingly naughty rendition.

Sondheim on Sondheim
Reviewing this Roundabout Theater Company production for Backstage in 2010, I ended with “An evening of your own with Steve? Grab it while you’ve got the chance.” The revue was conceived and directed by James Lapine, and at its core was Sondheim on video discussing his oeuvre and dishing about his experiences making theatre. You only hear that on the two-CD set, but it doesn’t make it any less interesting. A strong ensemble of eight, most of them not known for performing Sondheim, gave the evening a sense of freshness. My favorite moment, however, was when Barbara Cook and Norm Lewis came out and did several songs from Passion in costume and fully in character. I had never had the chance to see Cook, one of our finest singing actors, appear in a book show, and I at last got my chance, however abbreviated. She was superb and gained a Tony nomination for her effort in her final Broadway outing.

Starting Here, Starting Now
I suppose I really can’t be objective about this Maltby and Shire revue (which I mentioned above), as I was the box office treasurer for it back in winter of 1977 after having moved to New York City a mere four months prior. I saw it many, many times (well, at least the first act, as the box office had to be open at intermission, but I usually stayed for Act 2 as well), and it never failed to make me very happy. Back in 2012, at my suggestion, the York Theatre Company reassembled the spectacular cast of Loni Ackerman, George Lee Andrews, and Margery Cohen for a one-night-only benefit performance with limited rehearsal, and not only were they brilliant, they were totally off book and exactly re-created the staging as well (thanks to a video of the original made in 1977 by the show’s choreographer, Ethel Martin, so she could replicate her staging, and lots of muscle memory). It was heaven, and I’m very proud of having set that ball in motion. The evening was so successful that it had to be repeated two more times. Four years later the York did the show with a new cast in a Mufti concert, and that was terrific as well. I know this list is in alphabetical order, but I don’t care, this show is my favorite revue ever!

Honorable Mention:
Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill
– This 1972 off-Broadway revue is a great Weill primer, but alas the OCR never made it past LP. The York Theatre Company did it as a Mufti concert last winter, which, shockingly, I somehow failed to catch.

LingoLand – Another York production, from 2005, had Kenward Elmslie in person providing a guided tour through his career as lyricist, book writer, opera librettist, and poet, and his decidedly original, offbeat sensibility is well captured on this two-CD set.

The Littlest Revue – From 1956, this is another Ben Bagley off-Broadway production, with songs principally by Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke but also contributions from Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Sheldon Harnick, John Latouche, Kenward Elmslie, and Michael Brown, among others, and a cast that included Joel Grey, Charlotte Rae, and Tammy Grimes before they were famous. I was only two, so I missed it.

The Mad Show – This 1966 off-Broadway hit based on Mad magazine ran for 871 performances and featured music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by four guys, including Stephen Sondheim (billed as Esteban Nio Rido), whose sole contribution, “The Boy From…,” hilariously delivered by Linda Lavin before she was Linda Lavin, makes this recording a necessity. Caught the York’s 2011 Mufti concert version.

Putting It Together – Another Sondheim revue, from 1993 off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, and though the attempt to put his songs into a new storyline didn’t really come off, the recording contains a great performance from Julie Andrews as a rich wife with a straying husband.

Show Girl – You can’t go wrong with Carol Channing, and she is at her zaniest in this 1961 Broadway revue by Charles Gaynor, especially in the musical play parodies “This Is a Darn Fine Funeral” and “Switchblade Bess.” It’s too bad the Cecilia Sisson routine isn’t on it, but you can see that on YouTube, taken from a video version made for pay TV.

Tintypes – A highly imaginative look at the immigrant experience in America, this unusual show, conceived by Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin, and Gary Pearle, uses period songs of the late 1800s and early 1900s to make trenchant political and social commentary. It played 134 performances off-Broadway in 1980, transferred to Broadway for 93 more, and even made it to video. Famed director Jerry Zaks, currently represented on Broadway with the hit revival of Hello, Dolly!, leads a cast of five.

Tomfoolery – Not only produced but “devised” by legendary English producer Cameron Mackintosh, this compendium of songs by the brilliant American satirist Tom Lehrer has the advantage of collecting all of his best ones in one place. A hit in England in 1980, it flopped off-Broadway in 1981 (where I saw it), I think because American audiences already knew all the jokes.

Two on the Aisle – I’ve never had the chance to see this hit 1951 Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Jule Styne Broadway revue, but stars Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray shine, and the songs, especially “If You Hadn’t but You Did” and “Catch Our Act at the Met,” are nifty.

Two’s Company – Another show I’ve never caught, this 1952 Broadway revue with songs principally by Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke is a must because it stars Bette Davis flinging herself into musical comedy with scary fervor, especially on “Turn Me Loose on Broadway.” Her wry “Just Like a Man,” however, is actually pretty good.

 

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