Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The Unrecorded Ones: Part 2

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The Unrecorded Ones: Part 2 Last week I began a two-part survey of musicals from the '80s and '90s that were not commercially recorded. The first installment examined unrecorded scores that ranged in quality from excellent to moderately interesting. This time, I focus primarily on the misguided and/or camp entries: While it cannot be said that these scores had great merit, in several cases the show was such an unintentional riot that the lack of a recording is a major loss (at least for those who enjoy that sort of thing).
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Last week I began a two-part survey of musicals from the '80s and '90s that were not commercially recorded. The first installment examined unrecorded scores that ranged in quality from excellent to moderately interesting. This time, I focus primarily on the misguided and/or camp entries: While it cannot be said that these scores had great merit, in several cases the show was such an unintentional riot that the lack of a recording is a major loss (at least for those who enjoy that sort of thing).

The top spot here has to go to The Knife, presented by Joe Papp at the Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre in 1987 for what was meant to be a pre- Broadway run. With book and direction by David Hare, lyrics by Tim Rose Price, music by Nick Bicat, and choreography by Graciela Daniele, The Knife was an opera (rendering the book/lyric credit confusing) set in contemporary England, concerning a family man who decides he must change his sex.

Mandy Patinkin, in a role ideally suited to all of his falsetto vocal tricks, was the man, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was the gorgeous friend who helped him in his plight, and the ensemble boasted Ronn Carroll, Kevin Gray, Mary Gutzi, Cass Morgan, Mary Gordon Murray, Dennis Parlato, William Parry, Tim Shew, Mary Testa, and Lisa Vroman. With the best of intentions, and dead serious, the show proved an inadvertent, wildly off-key hoot, but one with a lot of lovely music (Bicat later composed an attractive score for a 1992 Swedish Elvira Madigan musical).

For a sample of The Knife's loony lyrics, try this, from a chant for some waiters: "Stainless steel and orange peel,/ We know how you really feel./ Plastic bin, polished tin,/ Everyone the same beneath the skin./ It's a gay rap,/ Cling fill, tin-foil easy-wrap rap,/ Everybody's gay but they keep it under wraps." And who can forget the sight of Patinkin, canape tray in hand, sporting one of Mastrantonio's gowns, head-tilted in his now-trademark fashion, weaving among the rich men assembled for a party? I wouldn't have missed it for the world, and feel sure I would still be playing a double-CD cast recording had one been made.

Second greatest loss in the camp category may be Marilyn: An American Fable (1983), the ludicrous Monroe biography musical that bore as little resemblance to the actual events of her life as it did to a good musical. But it was something of a field day for camp collectors, with such memorable items as "Miss Bubbles," an imaginary musical number from a Monroe film which featured the gallant Alyson Reed stuck in a bathtub, surrounded by the male ensemble pretending to be plumbers with plungers; "Gossip," for Hedda (poor Mary Testa again) and Louella; and "All Roads Lead to Hollywood," with Reed singing her heart out at the top of an airplane staircase. There actually was one good song: "Cold Hard Cash," written by Wally Harper and David Zippel and interpolated during previews into a score which was otherwise the work of nine less-than-glorious talents. But I suspect that a Marilyn cast album would be great fun to put on from time to time, if only for the sheer idiocy of it all (I still enjoy spinning Legs Diamond every now and then). Far more respectable but still fairly silly in retrospect was Shogun (1990), which attempted without success to condense a gigantic novel into an under-three-hour pop opera. It's difficult to credit Shogun composer Paul Chihara's statement that the show (at least prior to its pre-Broadway alterations) was "the best musical since Porgy and Bess," although it was visually striking. In spite of an on-stage shipwreck and earthquake, it was pretty dull going, but there was some nice music.

Prince of Central Park (1989), Florida and Abe Hirschfeld's gift to Broadway, was probably the last gasp of tacky amateurism in Broadway book musicals; utterly out of touch with the realities of New York City life, it was often camp heaven, with Jo Anne Worley's Bloomingdale's number "Red" a highlight.

There was the unbelievable Broadway Shroud of Turin musical Into The Light (1986), with nuns and priests kicking up their heels, and Dean Jones, engulfed in smoke and laser beams, trying to put over intense ballads about the difficulties he was having balancing a family with testing the authenticity of the relic. Christ only knows what it would have sounded like on disc.

Chita Rivera probably does not lie awake nights regretting that her performance as a queen so evil that she had no name in Merlin (1983) was never committed to disc; even if it had been, you would not have heard much of the show's star, magician Doug Henning, as all of his singing was eliminated during the show's eight weeks of previews. The Elmer Bernstein-Don Black score had two attractive songs, and Rivera's numbers, all of which allowed her to dance up a storm, were pretty amusing. Black was also the lyricist of The Little Prince and the Aviator (1982), which was so catastrophic that it shuttered in previews, but had some pleasant John Barry music. Had it been recorded, Rent fans would now be able to hear little Anthony Rapp excelling in the huge role of the Prince.

Chita Rivera's daughter Lisa Mordente was somehow nominated for a Tony for her work in Marlowe, which in terms of rock-bottom stupidity and unintentional hilarity may remain unmatched. Those who caught it still treasure it for such moments as the frug "Rocking The Boat" for Queen Elizabeth I and an archbishop, and Marlowe (Patrick Jude)'s finale number "The Madrigal Blues." And then there was the Polish joke Metro, unaccountably imported to the Minskoff in a spring Broadway season that saw it open alongside Crazy For You, Guys and Dolls, Jelly's Last Jam, and Falsettos. I found it a total riot, but I'm not sure it would have come across as such on disc, as it really needed to be seen (those who recall it may note that it bore similarities in style and narrative --although not in quality-- to Rent).

Lastly, a note on revues. In a time when what passes for a revue is generally just a collection of old songs, the lack of a recording is often not a serious loss. But in the last two decades there have been a few nice ones that went unrecorded. Two 1985 off-Broadway revues have had a couple of their songs preserved here and there: Hal Prince's Circle-in-the-Square baseball show Diamonds boasted contributions by Craig Carnelia, Cy Coleman, Larry Grossman, Kander and Ebb, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Comden and Green, and David Zippel. The appealing Personals, with contributions from Menken and Stephen Schwartz, had Jason Alexander, Dee Hoty, and Nancy Opel among its performers. And while the national tour of Jerry's Girls that starred Carol Channing, Andrea McArdle, and Leslie Uggams got recorded, the 1985 Broadway production with Chita Rivera, Dorothy Loudon, and Uggams did not; while Channing provided the show's only real raison d'etre, a recording of the Broadway cast would have been more fun to play than the tour cast album.

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