Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sweet Charity

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sweet Charity SWEET CHARITY ON DISC
As the thrilling June 15 Avery Fisher Hall benefit concert of Sweet Charity amply demonstrated, the marvelous Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score holds up every bit as well as the glorious Bob Fosse staging. While a success and a crowd pleaser, the original production of Sweet Charity played second fiddle in its day to the better reviewed and more awarded Man of La Mancha and Mame. But its conceptual stylization, staging, design, and score made it a more original and imaginative work than either of its competitors, which is perhaps why it has been revived on Broadway more successfully than La Mancha or Mame, and why it continues to hold world stages. A word, too, for Neil Simon's very funny book, which, if less innovative than everything around it, continues to work beautifully, as the recent concert -- which boasted Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Bebe Neuwirth, and Gwen Verdon handling the title role in tag-team fashion -- also demonstrated.

SWEET CHARITY ON DISC
As the thrilling June 15 Avery Fisher Hall benefit concert of Sweet Charity amply demonstrated, the marvelous Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score holds up every bit as well as the glorious Bob Fosse staging. While a success and a crowd pleaser, the original production of Sweet Charity played second fiddle in its day to the better reviewed and more awarded Man of La Mancha and Mame. But its conceptual stylization, staging, design, and score made it a more original and imaginative work than either of its competitors, which is perhaps why it has been revived on Broadway more successfully than La Mancha or Mame, and why it continues to hold world stages. A word, too, for Neil Simon's very funny book, which, if less innovative than everything around it, continues to work beautifully, as the recent concert -- which boasted Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Bebe Neuwirth, and Gwen Verdon handling the title role in tag-team fashion -- also demonstrated.

Charity was, of course, conceived as a return vehicle (following the birth of her daughter) for Broadway's greatest dancing comedienne, Gwen Verdon, and I doubt anyone will ever perform the show as well. It was the best all-around part she ever had, allowing her to demonstrate her acting gifts just as much as her dance skills. It was also the last role that showed off everything she could do; incomparable as was her Roxie Hart in Chicago, that show gave the most strenuous choreography to Chita Rivera. In fact, the role of Charity proved a bit much for Verdon even (at age 40) in 1966, and she often dropped such numbers as "You Should See Yourself," "Where Am I Going?," and "Charity's Soliloquy," provoking an amusing incident when the writer of a letter of complaint to the Times received remuneration from Verdon based on the percentage of the show the complainant had missed.

Columbia's original Broadway cast recording is one of the most enjoyable of the '60s, with ideal leads in Verdon, Helen Gallagher, Thelma Oliver, John McMartin, James Luisi, and Arnold Soboloff. It is essential for any show collection and is scheduled for a remastering as part of the recently commenced Columbia Broadway Masterworks series. It is also, to my knowledge, the only cast recording that preserves "Charity's Soliloquy," dropped from the show as of the Rivera national tour and the Juliet Prowse London production.

Prowse won raves when the show arrived at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1967, and the London critics also appreciated the originality of the piece more than the New York critics had. The CBS London cast recording is delightful, and offers a bit more dance music than the Broadway set. Prowse was a better vocalist than you might expect, Josephine Blake (who later played Rivera's The Rink role in London) and Paula Kelly were strong as the sidekicks, and Rod McLennan was a very good Oscar. The only problem: "I'm The Bravest Individual," while included in the production, was somehow left off the disc. A British studio cast LP on the Saga label, with Mary Preston in the title role, was issued during the London run, but is barely worth mentioning.

The third major English-language cast recording was EMI America's disc of the 1986 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival that starred Debbie Allen and that scrupulously recreated the original staging (with Fosse still around and in charge), garnering greater respect for the quality of the show than had been the case in '66. Unfortunately, the out-of-print cast recording was a botch, with Ralph Burns' flawless orchestrations, fully featured at the Minskoff, inexplicably augmented for the album by the work of four other orchestrators. The disc runs just 46 minutes, failing to take advantage of CD length to preserve more of the dance score (all three sections of the "Rich Man's Frug" were recorded, but one of them was left off the release). Allen sounds good enough, and her Tony-winning supporting leads Bebe Neuwirth and Michael Rupert are of particular interest. But the production was far stronger than it sounds on disc.

The '86 revival reflects one of the changes made in the score for the 1969 film version and the Decca soundtrack album, taking up the new melody composed for the title song. The film also gave Shirley MacLaine the very catchy "My Personal Property" in place of "You Should See Yourself," and "It's A Nice Face" in place of "I'm The Bravest Individual," while dropping a couple of other stage songs as well. While MacLaine was certainly a good choice, and while the movie is entertaining and preserves a good deal of the choreography, what had been a stylized comic fable on stage became a very literal and sometimes depressingly "real" story on screen.^ Columbia issued a special Opening Night at the Palace LP for distribution to radio stations, which intersperses clips from the cast album with interviews with Coleman, Fields, Simon, Verdon, and Gallagher, plus on-the-spot chats with such firstnighters as Lena Horne, Ethel Merman, Burt Bacharach, and Angie Dickinson, who comment on both the show and the Palace Theatre, which was inaugurated as a book musical venue by Charity.

Charity has had a long life in foreign productions, and there are cast albums in German, Dutch (both original and revival), and French; the latter is noteworthy for featuring Broadway's Sydney Chaplin (Bells Are Ringing, Subways Are For Sleeping, Funny Girl) singing "J'ai Peur de la Vie" ("Too Many Tomorrows"), and star Magali Noel substituting "My Personal Property" for "You Should See Yourself."

Which brings us to yet another first complete recording of a Broadway classic from JAY. As you would expect, the 96-minute, double-CD set, recorded in 1994 and released next week, preserves, along with all of the stage and film songs, a tremendous amount of previously unrecorded material, including the entire dance score, many incidental pieces, and the first recording of "Charity's Soliloquy" since '66. About the only thing missing here is the '86 Broadway revision of "I'm The Bravest Individual." And of course everything (except for the three movie songs) is heard in the Burns orchestrations.

The supporting cast is luxurious and strong. Josephine Blake recreates her '67 London Nickie opposite the Helene of Shezwae Powell. As Oscar, Gregg Edelman gets to do both versions of the title song. The two Nicely-Nicelys of the Royal National Theatre Guys and Dolls are here, the late David Healy with "I Love To Cry At Weddings" (the same song that original Nicely-Nicely Stubby Kaye did in the film), Clive Rowe in "Rhythm of Life." And Ethan Freeman, leading man of Vienna's Beauty and the Beast and Elisabeth and the Phantom in London and elsewhere, does "Too Many Tomorrows."

For the title role, Jacqueline Dankworth seems an odd choice: The daughter of Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, she has done nice work in the London Into The Woods and the Leicester, Haymarket Merrily We Roll Along, but has played no major West End leads. One would expect some sort of New York or London name to head up a new recording of a star vehicle like this, and the opportunity was there to preserve an unrecorded Charity like Donna McKechnie, Chita Rivera, or Ann Reinking. But Dankworth turns out to be fine, singing well and sounding like the character.

One can again question the recording of substantial sections of underscoring ("The Rescue," "Subway") without the dialogue they were meant to accompany, but this is another valuable and entertaining entry in the JAY series.

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