Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Hello Again from The Goodbye Girl

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Hello Again from The Goodbye Girl The release by First Night Records of the original London cast recording of The Goodbye Girl raises two closely related and debatable issues. The Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch-David Zippel musical was a major disappointment on Broadway in 1993. Based on a popular film and with a glittering group of participants above and below the title, it looked to be one of the season's strongest contenders, but was beset by problems from the moment it hit the stage in Chicago (where original director Gene Saks was replaced by Michael Kidd). It opened at the Marquis to mostly negative reviews, and eked out a six-month run on its advance sale and the drawing power of stars Bernadette Peters and Martin Short.
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The release by First Night Records of the original London cast recording of The Goodbye Girl raises two closely related and debatable issues. The Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch-David Zippel musical was a major disappointment on Broadway in 1993. Based on a popular film and with a glittering group of participants above and below the title, it looked to be one of the season's strongest contenders, but was beset by problems from the moment it hit the stage in Chicago (where original director Gene Saks was replaced by Michael Kidd). It opened at the Marquis to mostly negative reviews, and eked out a six-month run on its advance sale and the drawing power of stars Bernadette Peters and Martin Short.

Probably because of the stellar creative team and the film source, The Goodbye Girl continues to be heard from. It was first exhumed in 1994 at Marriott's Lincolnshire Theater, an unexpected venue as that theater is located in suburban Chicago, at the time the only city to have seen the original production other than New York. The show next appeared in a production that starred Debbie Gravitte and Gary Sandy and was seen in Los Angeles and elsewhere; Gravitte's singing of the juicy numbers created for Peters was exciting, and the scenery was at least better than that created for Broadway.

Fall, 1997 saw the show's third major U.S. resuscitation, at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater with Donna McKechnie in the lead. But a few months earlier, a London production was mounted that departed radically from the version presented on Broadway and (with minor alteration) in the other American productions. While Simon made only moderate adjustments to his book, all but three ("Elliot Garfield Grant," "Good News, Bad News," "Who Would Have Thought?") of the Broadway numbers were abandoned, and Don Black came in to write the lyrics (to Hamlisch's music) for seven new songs.

The fact that the London production, which starred local TV and stage favorite Gary Wilmot (Me and My Girl, Copacabana, Carmen Jones) opposite Ann Crumb (who had previously appeared in London in the world premiere of Aspects of Love and the concert Nine), failed even quicker (two months) than the New York production did raises our first question of the day, that of dead- horse beating. The Goodbye Girl was not a complete washout on Broadway, with a terrific turn from Short, and Peters (on the nights when she was in good voice) applying all of her vocal prowess to the kind of conventional Broadway numbers she hadn't sung in a musical since Mack and Mabel. But did anyone really think that the infusion of mostly inferior new songs was going to turn the show into a hit, particularly when it's exactly the kind of musical that today's London audiences have little use for?

As always, the excuse trotted out was that the Broadway production had been overblown and burdened with production numbers, and that this time the show was going to be done intimately; in fact, the Broadway show, even on the sizable Marquis stage, was relatively small, focusing on just three or four characters, and the London production had just as many production numbers as the original. As in most such cases, the word "intimate" was simply a code word for "low budget" and reduced cast size. But (with the exception of Candide and, in a sense, At The Grand/Grand Hotel), has a revised production of a flop ever really made the case that the show did not deserve its initial failure? Along with The Goodbye Girl, such shows as Annie 2/Annie Warbucks, Colette, Rags, Children of Eden, Merrily We Roll Along, The Baker's Wife, The Rink, Mack and Mabel and others have been tried again and again. While there have been improvements in several cases, the most enjoyable incarnation of each of these shows is probably to be found on disc. The current national tour of Big is something of a test case: a failed Broadway show substantially rewritten, with about seven new numbers added to about as many old ones. While this version will become the permanent one for future productions, the Big tour has done less than great business.

The other question raised by the London Goodbye Girl disc is one that show album collectors must ask themselves from time to time: Must I purchase recordings of subsequent incarnations of (mostly) failed musicals for the alterations and new material when I possess the original (and usually superior) performance? Hard-core collectors would, of course, not think twice about acquiring any new recording that features substantial changes from the first. An album like the 1987 London cast of Follies is a must, simply because it features four songs created for that version that will never again appear in a production of the show (although they can turn up in Sondheim revues). Neither the Leicester, Haymarket nor York Theater recordings of Merrily We Roll Along is as exciting as the original Broadway cast album, but one must have at least one of them because they preserve the substantial revisions and new numbers that are now part of the show's standard version. The double-CD London cast recording of The Baker's Wife has a great deal of material --some heard in or cut from the original production, some created for London-- not on the first recording, but all of the best things are on the first one, which features a far better performance.

These questions don't really have definitive answers, but they bring us to the release at hand. While the London Goodbye Girl was still playing, First Night put out a four-track single of three of the new songs (and one reprise); the new release (distributed domestically by Original Cast Records) is full- length, although it features (along with many reprises and some dialogue) just nine songs, Zippel's contribution further diminished by not preserving "Who Would Have Thought?" (which was done in London only by the young girls, and not first by the stars).

Eight months ago in this space, I offered a run-down on the new material for London, so some of the following will be familiar to those with long memories. "I'll Take The Sky" replaces Paula's Broadway opening "No More"; while the new number is attractive, it's not as strong as the song that many felt was too 11-o'clock-ish for the opening scene. In general, the London score has a more pop feel, and that first become evident with "Body Talk," a far less appealing number than the one it replaced, "A Beat Behind." Instead of the sweet mother-daughter duet "Footsteps," the pair now have the angrier, more intense "Get A Life." The first act ends with "Am I Who I Think I Am?" for Elliot and Paula, which has a melody close to that of the cut song "I Think I Can Play This Part."

Landlady Mrs. Crosby (Shezwae Powell, of the London Cats, Children of Eden, Once on This Island, and 70, Girls, 70)'s new song is "If You Break Their Hearts," in which she warns Elliot that he had better do right by Paula and daughter. The new rooftop number, "Do You Want To Be In My Movie?," turns into an MGM fantasy with ensemble. And the catchiest of the new songs comes last, Elliot's proposal to Paula's daughter, "The Future Isn't What It Used To Be."

The London Goodbye Girl is perhaps the sharpest example to date of an unnecessary revision. The skimpier new score isn't bad, but in no way does it improve upon what was there (the loss of all three of Peters' solos is particularly inexplicable). Yet the new disc is one that collectors are likely to require; it preserves a score that is not only tremendously different from that heard on the first recording, but that may never be heard again (one presumes that future productions will revert to the Broadway text). And if the leads aren't quite a match for Peters and Short, they don't disappoint, with Wilmot appealing and Crumb displaying one of the better show voices around (too bad she doesn't get to tackle Paula's old songs).

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com