Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Something for the Boys

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Something for the Boys SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS (Music Box Recordings)
While it's a commonplace to dismiss Cole Porter's score for the 1943 hit Something For The Boys as one of his lesser achievements, I love it -- very '40s, consistently appealing, and featuring some really dirty lyrics in "By The Mississinewah" and "The Leader of a Big Time Band." With the incomparable Ethel Merman -- by that time at the peak of her talents as singer, comedienne, and uproarious stage personality -- it was guaranteed a year's wartime run.

SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS (Music Box Recordings)
While it's a commonplace to dismiss Cole Porter's score for the 1943 hit Something For The Boys as one of his lesser achievements, I love it -- very '40s, consistently appealing, and featuring some really dirty lyrics in "By The Mississinewah" and "The Leader of a Big Time Band." With the incomparable Ethel Merman -- by that time at the peak of her talents as singer, comedienne, and uproarious stage personality -- it was guaranteed a year's wartime run.

Since 1993, a San Francisco company that goes by the name of 42nd St. Moon has been offering seasons of musical revivals in concert in modestly scaled stagings. The company has managed to establish itself in a boom period for such concert productions, the origins of which are accurately traced back to Town Hall's Broadway in Concert shows (She Loves Me, Knickerbocker Holiday) of 1977 and Bill Tynes' numerous New Amsterdam Theater Company productions of the '80s (no, it didn't start with London's Lost Musicals or New York's Encores!) by 42nd St. Moon co-producer Greg MacKellan in the notes for the company's first cast recording, Something For The Boys, which the Moon produced in 1994 and again in 1997.

Unlike Encores!, the 42nd St. Moon productions feature piano accompaniment and unknown performers. Which requires me to get right to the fact that the new disc is not the only Boys CD available, and that the earlier release poses insurmountable competition for any new one. AEI issued on both LP and CD highlights of a War Bonds radio broadcast featuring Merman and other members of the cast performing highlights of the show -- songs and some dialogue -- during the latter part of its run (Betty Bruce had by that time replaced second leading lady Paula Laurence). Accompanied by full orchestra, the sound of Merman is glorious enough to bring tears to one's eyes, whether she's magnificently belting the title tune, torching her way through "He's A Right Guy" (currently Randy Graff's big solo in High Society), or temporarily purloining Betty Garrett's solo "I'm In Love With A Soldier Boy." The disc is a rare trip back to '40s Broadway, in a less neatly packaged form than most cast albums of the period, and Merman's leading man, Bill Johnson, possesses one of the most gorgeous show baritones I've ever heard (Johnson went on to the West End productions of Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me, Kate, took over for Alfred Drake in the Broadway Kismet, and died shortly after creating the lead in Pipe Dream).

The AEI disc lacks three numbers: "The Leader of the Big Time Band" (nicely preserved on the cast album of Ben Bagley's Decline and Fall....), the enjoyable prologue, and a trio for the three cousins around whom the plot revolves. The 42nd St. Moon set has all the songs, restores a cut number, and interpolates one from Mexican Hayride and another from the unproduced Ever Yours. But even the most potent contemporary headliners would be hard pressed to compete with Merman and Johnson, so one may wish that 42nd St. Moon had devoted the first in a proposed series of cast albums to one of the many shows they've done that exist in no other full-length, commercially available recorded form (i.e. Peggy-Ann, Jubilee, America's Sweetheart, As Thousands Cheer, The Cat and the Fiddle ).

That said, the performance here is respectable, piano and all. For Merman's role of Blossom Hart, the company uses someone who sounds nothing at all like her; Meg Mackay is not a brassy belter, but rather a good, throaty show mezzo whose sound bears traces of Nancy Dussault and Marti Stevens; she's not Ethel, but she satisifes. Leading man Joseph Lustig is a decent singer, but less strong than Mackay, and the other principals are fine. My suggestion: Buy the AEI disc, and buy the 42nd St. Moon one, too, as doing so could very well lead to a series of interesting discs devoted to rare scores.


LERNER, LOEWE, LANE & FRIENDS (Varese Sarabande)
Last fall, Varese Sarabande issued in double-CD packages the 12th (Stephen Sondheim III) and 13th (Cole Porter) editions of the annual Los Angeles STAGE AIDS benefits. The latest one, featuring -- separately and in various combinations -- the work of Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, and Burton Lane, has made it to disc in record time, the 2-plus hour set recorded live just two months prior to its release.

The company once again consists of "names" and/or known quantities (Janis Paige, Joely Fisher, Betty Garrett, Rex Reed, Charlotte Rae, Donna McKechnie, Rex Smith, William Katt, Pam Myers) along with a host of lesser-known, L.A.-based talent. I particularly enjoyed Brock Peters in a song from the unproduced Lerner-Lane movie musical Huckleberry Finn; Joanna Gleason in "Take Care of This House" from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; James Barbour's "On The Street Where You Live"; Rex Smith in "Too Late Now"; and three Camelot numbers: Patrick Cassidy delivering "C'est Moi" as a salute to his father Jack's comic egotism; Patrick's mother Shirley Jones in "Before I Gaze at You Again"; and Davis Gaines in "If Ever I Would Leave You." Bill Hutton and Jamie Anderson are heard in numbers from the out-of-town closer Lolita, My Love.

As the official archival videos I've seen of these concerts demonstrate, the STAGE benefits are more fun to attend than to listen to. The personalities and looks of many of the participants make their numbers more appealing, and the often comic visual concepts devised for many of these songs can't be translated to disc (although director David Galligan does a nice job attempting to explain them in the notes). Having recently watched this year's event, I can attest that the recording cannot do justice to Marti Muller's male/female, double-sided "How Could You Believe Me....?"; the concealment of "Guy Haines"' identity in "Dance A Little Closer"; Garrett's fully illustrated "Economics" lesson; Amy Pietz (Caroline in the City)'s homeless-woman "Loverly"; Paige's still-glamorous "Seven Deadly Virtues" on and around a piano; the dance routines for Donna McKechnie and Jack Noseworthy; and the full impact of Jones, radiating class and beauty, and son Patrick's visual tour-de-force.

But there are a number of pleasant performances here, and if you like such event recordings, you will probably enjoy the set. And it's the most complete recording thus far of one of these events, with Roger Rees (who is heard elsewhere) in the final scene from Camelot the only major number omitted.

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