Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Human Comedy and Ziegfeld Follies

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Human Comedy and Ziegfeld Follies THE HUMAN COMEDY (Kilmarnock)
The first commercial release of the original Broadway cast album of The Human Comedy, recorded 14 years ago, is a major event. Based on William Saroyan's lovely evocation of the homefront -- specifically Ithaca, California -- during World II, it features one of the most original scores of the last two decades. Although William Dumaresq's libretto does a fine job of bringing to life the members of the Macauley family, it is specifically the contribution of composer Galt MacDermot that makes the piece so special.
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THE HUMAN COMEDY (Kilmarnock)
The first commercial release of the original Broadway cast album of The Human Comedy, recorded 14 years ago, is a major event. Based on William Saroyan's lovely evocation of the homefront -- specifically Ithaca, California -- during World II, it features one of the most original scores of the last two decades. Although William Dumaresq's libretto does a fine job of bringing to life the members of the Macauley family, it is specifically the contribution of composer Galt MacDermot that makes the piece so special.

MacDermot first reached Broadway with Hair, which had had its premiere at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre; that sizable success was followed by another hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, then a considerable downfall when MacDermot composed the back-to-back Broadway disasters Dude and Via Galactica just a few years later. In 1983, The Human Comedy took him back to the same theatre --the Public's Anspacher-- where Hair had premiered, and brought him his first set of critical raves in 12 years. Joseph Papp, who at the time was eager to transfer to Broadway anything from the Public that looked like a hit, made the unwise decision to move the intimate, oratorio-like The Human Comedy to Broadway; while it might have lasted a year or so at another off-Broadway house, it ran less than two weeks at the Royale. The complete, through-sung piece was recorded at the time, but, while there was briefly a cassette version offered by mail, the recording languished in the vaults, leaving a work ideally suited to colleges and community theatres mostly unknown and unperformed.

The Human Comedy arrived in the midst of the takeover of the British pop opera, and, while it sounds nothing like any of those pieces, it is probably the loveliest pop opera written by Americans. It's actually difficult to say what it sounds like, for while MacDermot draws on country, Copland, period swing, and classical lyricism, he came up with a sound (and an orchestration) all his own. And MacDermot's score is the perfect embodiment of the little world that Saroyan created in his novel (although I believe the musical to be superior to both the novel and the successful film based on it).

To the role of Mrs. Macauley that Betty Buckley sang in workshop (and was announced for at the Public), folk singer Bonnie Koloc brings her own unique sound. Rex Smith, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Leata Gallaway and the others shine, and you may be able to detect Donna Murphy in the chorus. I would advise those who have never seen the show not to try to excerpt the recording (which is pretty difficult, as the two CDs have but one track apiece), and instead listen to it all the way through, and more than once. It's a special work indeed, and the release of the recording (on MacDermot's own Kilmarnock label, distributed by Original Cast Records) should not have taken so long.


ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1934 (AEI)
It's not every day that a live tape of a Broadway musical production from the 1930s surfaces, so attention should be paid when one does. The 1934 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies was the first following the death of producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and was actually produced by the Shuberts, with Ziegfeld's widow Billie Burke billed as the presenter. After a successful New York run at the Winter Garden, it went on tour, where a performance at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven was recorded in its entirety, directly onto continuous discs.

The new release from AEI offers 74 minutes of highlights from these recordings, eliminating material that had not appeared in the Broadway version as well as some barely audible sketches. But don't expect high fidelity from what has been included; even with state-of-the-art digital technology, there's only so much that can be done, and many of the lyrics here are indecipherable. But this is a rare document nonetheless, and the earliest full-length live recording of a musical production.

The featured songwriters are Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg, and the best-known songs are "What Is There To Say?" and "I Like the Likes of You." The chief attraction is Fanny Brice, heard in several typical spoofs, notably a send-up of Aimee Semple MacPherson called "Soul Saving Sadie"; while it's a struggle to make out some of her words, the star quality comes through. You can also hear comics Eugene and Willie Howard, lead singer Everett Marshall, and newcomer Eve Arden, the latter already in full command of her trademark arch style. The liner notes raise the question of whether or not it could be Ethel Merman singing "Suddenly" and "Green Eyes"; while the voice does sound like Merman's, surely she was still on Broadway in "Anything Goes" in March of 1935.

And of course that question leads to the inevitable wish that this were a tape of a live performance of a book musical of the same moment, like "Anything Goes," "Jubilee," or "Porgy and Bess." Still, this remains a unique, if hard-to-hear, journey back.

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