There was a good reason that the Drama Dept. decided to stage its 1998 hit production of the Irving Berlin-Moss Hart revue As Thousands Cheer in June, as opposed to the preceding spring or following fall. Summer was the only time when all the members of the show's illustrious cast -- including Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillan, B.D. Wong, Mary Beth Peil, Kevin Chamberlin, and Paula Newsome -- were available.
On Dec. 7, the sextet of actors reconvened to record As Thousands Cheer , and, again, getting them all together in one place involved a minor miracle in scheduling. Wong traveled up for the day from Wilmington, DE, where he's playing Linus in the Broadway-bound revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown . McGillin traveling in from the filming of a television movie. Peil is busy with her recurring role on television's "Dawson's Creek." Both Chamberlin and Newsome were cast in television series this fall -- "Trinity" and "Conrad Bloom" respectively. But "Trinity" was canceled and Newsome's story line was written out of "Conrad Bloom."
The sextet gathered at Manhattan's Clinton Studios for a one-day, marathon session, produced by Bruce Kimmel, the affable president of Varese Sarabonde Records, which is releasing the album.
Waiting to begin the afternoon selections, Kuhn lapses into a jazz version of "How's Chances." The piano and bass follow her lead. Finally, her fellow actors return from the lunch break and don earphones. Everyone runs through the number. Kimmel asks Wong, McGillin and Chamberlin to punch up the language -- there is a certain sameness to the men's pronunciation. Later, the bass player offers several comments. But then, the bass player always has several comments.
"That bass player is beginning to annoy me," mutters Kimmel. "That guy is the most reviewed bass player in New York theatre," jokes director Christopher Ashley. "He was mentioned in every notice."
"It's gone to his head," says Kimmel.
* * *
The As Thousands Cheer recording is not only the popular Drama Dept.'s first album; it is the first recording ever of the 1933 show, widely considered to be one of the most artistically sophisticated revues in Broadway history. For that reason, few eyebrows rose when Kitty Carlisle Hart, widow of Moss Hart and executor of his estate, stopped by for a look. And, of course, where Hart is, George S. Kaufman's daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider, can't be far behind. "I wish George Kaufman was involved with this somehow," Schneider says, peering at the actors through the control room's sound-proof glass window. "They seem to be having an awfully good time in there."
Hart is no stranger to the production. A happy protector of her husband's legacy, she attended roughly 20 of the 44 performances which played Off Broadway's Greenwich House Theatre last summer. The former New York State Council on the Arts chairperson sat in on a few takes, but didn't seem overly worried about the progress. "These people are very good singers and very good actors," she said. "They just do it so well."
She did express some dismay that more of Moss Hart's sketches and dialogue weren't being incorporated into the album. One sketch that did make the cut was "Metropolitan Opens in Old Time Splendor," a satire on corporate sponsorship in which a radio station presents a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, all the while extolling the virtues of its sponsor, Mueller's Miracle Mustard Sauce for Steak.
The sketch was extremely funny, as it was in the show. Prior to Cheer 's first performance, there had been some question as to whether these 65-year-old nuggets could even inspire a smile. "For a while there, in the first rehearsal there was a feeling that `Can we possibly make this funny?' " said Ashley. "The songs were no problem: These are classics." Ashley tested the sketches in a few readings. Some lived, some died. In the end, however, he and the cast came to trust the material. "Moss Hart," he concluded, "was a funny man."
* * *
There has been some argument between the Drama Dept. and the Berlin estate as to what form the album should take. The stage version was a truncated form of the original show, down from 55 cast members to 6, 150 minutes to 70. Songs and sketches that were no longer topical and/or playable were cut.
For the album, Ashley and company have decided to reinstate songs which, though they no longer worked dramatically, certainly come across aurally. These include "The Metropolitan Opera Song," "Society Wedding," and "Debts." The opera song, originally a companion piece to the opera sketch, tells of the upstart nouveau riche who, post-Crash, are now crowding the Met's boxes -- among them a "Mr. Reuben, a Cuban" of the famous delicatessen.
"Debts" regards a then-timely treatment of a now-forgotten monetary conference between the U.S. and Europe. In the song, four cheap European countries devise ways to repay their U.S. debt in silver, zinc, tin and wood. Berlin's lyric is an odd, but politically and economically astute piece of work which would probably give a isolationist Republican financier a good laugh.
The cast goes through one take of the song. "I'm not understanding you on the word `wood,' " pipes in Ashley from the control room. "I don't understand the whole song," retorts McGillin.
By now, Douglas Carter Beane, the Dept.'s jovial artistic director and a rampant antiquarian, has walked in and is balancing a doughnut on his head. "I will not hear a word against the `Debts' song," he pronounces. "I like the `Debts' song!" Trim, black-clad Kathleen Marshall, responsible of Cheer 's musical staging, agrees. Serious and officious as a CFO up until this point, she now joins Beane in his mock dudgeon. "It's a piece of important musical theater history, God damn it!"
The cast prepares to record the show's finale, or, rather, anti-finale; the wittily self-referential song describes how the Supreme Court has decided the revue need not deliver a bothersome reprise. Nevertheless, each member of the cast attempts a few bars of his or her spotlight number before being shouted down by the rest of the players.
Kimmel has arranged to record two versions of the finale: a long one and a short one. The long one includes a snippet of the Berlin classic "Easter Parade." Which rendition will be used on the album depends on another decision form the Berlin estate. In the production, the estate prevented the Drama Dept. from performing "Easter Parade," because it feared the use of the number would distract from an upcoming stage version of the movie "Easter Parade." The estate may, however, allow the tune on the album.
Later, the actors record "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," the song the company chose to replace "Easter Bonnet."
"Let's have another piece of pie..." sings the cast. Nevermind the pie; what's that brown stuff near the cookies? "It's tahini," insists Ashley. Nobody believes him. "Why's it brown?" wonders Wong. Wong tastes. "Well," he says, "Whatever it is, it's not chocolate."
Chamberlin eats a doughnut. "Won't that effect your voice?" I ask.
"Only if I eat it while I sing," he replies.
Dinner break is called, as dozens cheer.
-- By Robert Simonson