Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Forgotten Show Albums

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Forgotten Show Albums I introduce with this column an occasional feature, to appear when no new theatre recordings are at hand. "Forgotten Show Albums" will delve into obscure cast recordings and studio discs not on CD (and in some cases unlikely to ever be), most from the '50s and '60s. They will, of course, vary in degree of obscurity, ranging from full-fledged Broadway/Off-Broadway/London cast albums to strange, unclassifiable novelty discs. And I inaugurate this feature with a trio of genuinely obscure titles you may have missed.
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I introduce with this column an occasional feature, to appear when no new theatre recordings are at hand. "Forgotten Show Albums" will delve into obscure cast recordings and studio discs not on CD (and in some cases unlikely to ever be), most from the '50s and '60s. They will, of course, vary in degree of obscurity, ranging from full-fledged Broadway/Off-Broadway/London cast albums to strange, unclassifiable novelty discs. And I inaugurate this feature with a trio of genuinely obscure titles you may have missed.

CLOWNAROUND
(RCA)
Clownaround opened in April, 1972 at the Oakland, California Coliseum; a circus-like arena production, it was to have toured and eventually hit New York's Madison Square Garden. Instead, it played 14 performances then folded forever, taking with it a fabulously elaborate set created by Sean Kenny, the brilliant British designer of Oliver!, Lock Up Your Daughters, and Blitz!. Clownaround had music by Moose Charlap, the composer of three Broadway bombs -- Whoop-Up, Kelly, and The Conquering Hero -- and one success, Mary Martin's Peter Pan (although Charlap and his lyricist, Carolyn Leigh, were partially supplanted by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green). The book and lyrics were by Alvin Cooperman, but the production's biggest selling point was its director: The logo is topped with the words "Gene Kelly's Production of Clownaround."

RCA Records presed 4,000 copies of what's billed as "the original show album," to be sold at locations where the show would play; most were never shipped out (and eventually melted down), making the LP one of the all-time rarest. Although Ruth Buzzi was the top-billed star (heading a company of 70), she is not to be heard on the recording, which features mostly a chorus, with an occasional unidentified soloist. The songs, about clowns, balloons, laughter, and nothing in particular, were clearly meant as background items for the stunts and antics, and the recording is presumably a sort of soundtrack, to be played in the background during the show and/or lip-synched to.

The sleeve copy tell us that "Clownaround entertains everyone, young and old alike, with its freshness, its zaniness, its total enjoyability." Perhaps, but the virtually unplayable disc almost defines the term "collector's item": Its only value is its rarity. If Clownaround were to be reissued, the CD would have no value whatsoever (and collectors who possess the LP probably hope it isn't reissued).

MY FAIRFAX LADY
(Jubilee)
MY SQUARE LADDIE
(Foremost Records)
While we have Forbidden Broadway to skewer the musicals of today, it's hard to imagine a musical that would inspire two full-length LP satires. But then My Fair Lady was not your ordinary garden-variety hit, but an earthshaker. Produced, written and directed by Sid Kuller, My Fairfax Lady spoofed the show by resetting it on Fairfax Avenue, a Jewish delicatessen area which at the time also housed the offices of CBS (the company that bankrolled Fair Lady). My Fairfax Lady actually played a theatre on Fairfax in 1957, and the Jubilee LP (in "superlaphonic hi-fi") is the cast album of that production. British ingenue Liza Doowhittle (Carol Shannon in a nice take-off on Julie Andrews) explains to Col. Dill Pickeling (Bert Gordon) that she was brought over by Noel Coward to appear on his CBS telecast of Blithe Spirit, but is now stranded on Fairfax ("a street with a heart, and the heart has a burn," as the Kirby Stone Four sing in the opening number), unable to blend with the natives. Pickeling brings her to see the Professor (Billy Gray, a Yiddish dialect comedian), who will coach her so her speech conforms to that heard in the neighborhood.

Unlike most of the Forbidden Broadway spoofs, the songs here don't use the actual Frederick Loewe music, but employ close paraphrases (you can hear how the lyric "Indigestion comes/ But I carry Tums/ When I walk on the street where you eat" sits). A product of a time when there was a market for Jewish spoofs (My Son, The Folk Singer was a more mainstream offshoot), My Fairfax Lady is cute but best enjoyed by those familiar with Yiddish expressions ("The chraine is red and plain, and both could stain" refers to two kinds of horseradish).

MY SQUARE LADDIE
(released by Foremost around the same time as Fairfax, and reissued on LP by AEI in 1980)
involves much bigger names: The stars are Nancy Walker, Reginald Gardiner, and Zasu Pitts, and the music is by Max Showalter, a film and stage performer (on Broadway in The Grass Harp and Hello, Dolly!) and co-author of the musical Harrigan 'n' Hart. A made-for-LP piece, never staged to my knowledge,Laddie features musical paraphrases of a more sophisticated nature than those in Fairfax.

Gardiner is a Britisher lost in Brooklyn; when flower seller Gracie (Walker) and newspaper vendor Maggie (Pitts) lay eyes on him, they ask the musical question, "What Makes A Limey Talk So Square?" Reg longs to be as low-brow as them ("Oh, To Be Bohemian!"), so Gracie takes him under her wing, wagering she can transform him into a believable Brooklynite.

After teaching Reg expressions like "Your muddah wears army shoes" and (in song) "It's De Oily Boid Dat Always Gets De Woim," she takes him to the race track and passes him off as an ex-con. Reg is elated ("I Could Have Boozed All Night"), but when he's ignored by the girls, he walks out. Walker realizes "I'm Kinda Partial To His Puss," and when he returns, she exclaims, "Hey killer, bring me de racing form" as the curtain falls.

This is the kind of novelty disc common to the '50s and nowadays virtually extinct; if it's only moderately amusing, Walker is priceless as always.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com