Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Coco, Rink and Other Reissues

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Coco, Rink and Other Reissues COCO (MCA)
Although the 1969 musical Coco ran a season on Broadway, had a tour, and returned its investment, don't expect to see a revival.
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COCO (MCA)
Although the 1969 musical Coco ran a season on Broadway, had a tour, and returned its investment, don't expect to see a revival.

Indeed, if one looks up the original reviews, one will find that few shows as moderately successful as Coco received such a panning. But Coco was a fairly unique production: It somehow secured the services of Katharine Hepburn (unlike most of her fellow '30s/'40s film divas, still a first-class star at the top of her field in the late '60s) to make her only musical theatre appearance playing fashion great Coco Chanel, and if Hepburn was anything but gallic, she was a show in herself, more than enough reason to attend. If lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner was unable to extract from Chanel's life a solid plot (with Hepburn in charge, the show could only focus on Coco's later years), he provided Hepburn with a constant stream of witty lines.

Choreographer Michael Bennett, fresh from his first hit (Promises, Promises), wound up assuming most of the directorial chores and conceived dazzling fashion parades and other musical staging. And Cecil Beaton's sets and costumes were the height of chic. So audiences tended to enjoy Coco as an event show, even if they were aware that it was not likely to take its place in the repertoire of classic musicals.

The cast album poses an additional problem. While Andre Previn's movie-ish music is often very attractive, and while Lerner's lyrics are almost too insistently clever, the sound on the recording is poor, so bad in fact that the first LP issue was withdrawn, with Hepburn re-recording a couple of her tracks, and the whole thing remixed, re-edited, then reissued (you can tell if you have the first or second LP issue by listening to the title track; on the second issue, the speech that precedes the song is underscored, while on the first it isn't). The new MCA Coco CD features the material heard on the second LP release. But even with contemporary remastering devices, the CD still doesn't have the kind of sound customary on cast albums of the time.

But that doesn't mean you can afford to miss Coco; even if the score is uneven, where else will you hear Hepburn croaking her way through production numbers and ballads (it should be stated that her singing improved significantly in the second half of the run, long after the album was recorded)? Where else will you hear such now-politically incorrect lyrics as those David Holliday sings in "A Woman Is How She Loves," or find the kind of number for a gay character (Rene Auberjonois' "Fiasco") that they would never get away with these days? While Coco will always be a recording more treasured by hard-core collectors and fans than by the general public, it's one of a kind.


THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (MCA)
I believe that for some time The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has been the longest-running musical not to have its cast album on CD (even though the film soundtrack was available). Although MCA did not make good on its promise to issue a fall trio of Coco, Whorehouse, and Applause, they did get the first two titles out, and the Whorehouse score remains very appealing.

Although it's hardly a deeply integrated score filled with deeply insightful character numbers, Carol Hall's songs manage a successful blend of pop with theatricality, and several of them--"Hard Candy Christmas," "Doatsy Mae"--are memorable and touching. Whorehouse probably worked because almost no one involved had much experience assembling a Broadway musical; not being aware of the rules or at least not bothering to follow them, they created something fresh and fun. By the time the same people got around to creating a sequel, they may have known too much, and the result--The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public--was indeed awful, even if it had a few appealing Hall numbers (musical sequels just don't seem to work, with Divorce Me, Darling! perhaps the best of them). But if the first Whorehouse might now be a tougher sell than it was in the pre-AIDS period, its score certainly deserves to be available on CD.


THE RINK (JAY)
Although for the time being the original Broadway cast album of Kander and Ebb's The Rink starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli is available only as an import, JAY has issued here the 1988 London cast recording. Even given a completely different production from that seen in New York, The Rink was an even quicker flop in the West End. But the album it produced has better sound and is more complete than the Broadway recording, running 13 minutes longer and including the first act finale and other material not heard on the earlier disc.

Taking the Rivera and Minnelli parts are Josephine Blake and Diane Langton. Blake was seen in the West End in Sweet Charity, in the Royal National's Jean Seberg, and was a favorite at Manchester's Library Theatre Company, where the London Rink originated, and where Blake has had the leads in Follies and Gypsy. Langton had leading parts in the West End productions of Pippin, A Chorus Line, Windy City, Songbook, and I'm Getting My Act Together (she recorded the last three), although she was most famous throughout the '70s and early '80s for missing performances of the shows she was in.

Blake has a thicker, throatier sound than Rivera, Langton has a strong, silvery belt, and both are excellent. If they can't hope to beat Rivera (for whom the show was written) and Minnelli (celebrated Kander and Ebb interpreter), probably no one ever will. And because they're not as famous as the original pair, they can't match the top-stars-together excitement of Broadway. But the Kander and Ebb score for The Rink is so enjoyable that one is happy to have a second cast recording of it, and this one is very entertaining.


LEAVE IT TO JANE (AEI)
You won't find a musical theatre reference that doesn't credit as a major step in the development of the American musical a series of shows created between 1915 and 1919 by Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, and Guy Bolton for the intimate Princess Theatre. Several of these shows have received concert recreations, but two of them had major revivals, Very Good Eddie in the '70s, and Leave It To Jane, which had a two-year off-Broadway run beginning in 1959.

The 1917 Leave It To Jane, the progenitor of a line of college musicals (Good News, Too Many Girls, and Best Foot Forward are later examples), has an utterly delightful score, including such top-drawer Kern-Wodehouse songs as "The Siren's Song," "The Sun Shines Brighter," and the title number. The only recording of the Jane score is that from the '59 revival, and it's a charmer, even if the cast is good rather than exceptional (the unknown George Segal is to be found in a secondary part). Originally a Strand Records LP, then an AEI LP reissue, the new AEI CD goes back to the original master tapes, and includes bonus tracks, one of which is a live performance that may or may not derive from this production. While this is by no means the kind of authentic recreation we've now become accustomed to, the small theatre orchestra was augmented for the recording.

One doubts that a revival of Jane would last two years off-Broadway these days, but such re-investigations were quite the thing then, what with the smash success of The Threepenny Opera plus an off-Broadway revival of The Boy Friend, both playing just a few blocks away from this Jane. And as one doubts that there will be a new Jane recording anytime soon, you would do well to investigate this disc.


MASK AND GOWN (AEI)
Female impersonator T.C. Jones won attention aping Tallulah Bankhead among others on Broadway in New Faces of '56, so that show's producer, Leonard Sillman, along with other members of its creative team, devised an intimate revue built around Jones' special talents. Unfortunately, those talents proved overextended in Mask and Gown, which lasted a month at the Golden Theater in the fall of 1957 and was not commercially recorded.

But a live tape of a performance was made from a microphone in the footlights, and highlights of it were released in 1986 on an AEI LP. Now the label has transferred the tape to CD, added a bonus track, and, with the help of new digital technology, attempted to clean up the sound. But it still sounds like what it is, a live Broadway tape from the '50s, definitely low-fi.

The material here is not distinguished, but those interested in documents of gay history will be interested to hear what camp humor sounded like in the '50s: Jones' show includes spoofs of Tallulah, Louella Parsons, Marilyn Monroe, Mabel Mercer, Ethel Merman, and Judy Holliday, the latter two starring in musicals around the corner from Mask and Gown.


You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com