Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISK: A New Wonderful Town (JAY)

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISK: A New Wonderful Town (JAY) One of the finest musical comedies of its time, Wonderful Town (1953) boasted a genuine star; a sharp libretto (by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on their successful Broadway comedy My Sister Eileen) with humor, sentiment, and charm in perfect balance; and a terrific score, with Betty Comden and Adolph Green at their best in the lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein supplying accessible yet sophisticated music that was a cut above the usual high standard of the time. The show reunited from On The Town (another musical valentine to New York City) Bernstein, Comden, Green, director George Abbott, and ultimately Jerome Robbins, who joined the show on the road to redo Donald Saddler's choreography. While the second Town was a less adventurous composition than the first, it was a model of conventional musical comedy know-how.

http://images.playbill.com/photo/n/e/ne_91750.gif
Photo by Photos by Aubrey Reuben

One of the finest musical comedies of its time, Wonderful Town (1953) boasted a genuine star; a sharp libretto (by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on their successful Broadway comedy My Sister Eileen) with humor, sentiment, and charm in perfect balance; and a terrific score, with Betty Comden and Adolph Green at their best in the lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein supplying accessible yet sophisticated music that was a cut above the usual high standard of the time. The show reunited from On The Town (another musical valentine to New York City) Bernstein, Comden, Green, director George Abbott, and ultimately Jerome Robbins, who joined the show on the road to redo Donald Saddler's choreography. While the second Town was a less adventurous composition than the first, it was a model of conventional musical comedy know-how.

What's most remarkable about the score is that it was written five weeks prior to rehearsal, replacing another one by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt, yet fitting the libretto like a glove. What's most responsible for the decline in reputation of a show that received unanimously ecstatic reviews in '53 is the difficulty of filling the shoes of incandescent, riotously outgoing and enjoyable original star Rosalind Russell; Ruth Sherwood was her only major musical theatre role, and for it she received perhaps the best set of personal notices anyone has ever garnered for a musical. The most recent New York revival (at New York City Opera, with Kay McClelland the leading lady) fell flat, and the show -- which this writer considers as strong as any musical comedy of the '50s -- is not likely to get its due again until just the right lady comes along.

In the meantime, the great Roz can be sampled on two cast albums. The original Broadway disc (Decca LP/MCA CD) is wholly terrific; if at 45 minutes it lacks a number of pieces (including the overture), it vividly captures the sound of '50s Broadway musical excitement, and supporting leads George Gaynes and Edith (later Edie) Adams are ideal.

Columbia Pictures, which had in 1942 made the movie version of My Sister Eileen (in which Russell had first played Ruth), decided to save money and, instead of purchasing the rights to Wonderful Town, make its own musical version of the property still controlled by the studio. With a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and a cast including Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse, the 1955 movie musical "My Sister Eileen" (available on video) is pleasant, but the score is not remotely of the caliber of the Broadway version.

This unfortunate circumstance had a silver lining: Because Russell never got to preserve her musical Ruth on film, the show was a natural during the period in the '50s when Broadway musicals were regularly offered in network television mountings. The November 30, 1958 CBS-TV production featured, in addition to Russell, many of the original supporting principals. The resulting two-hour live telecast (which can be viewed in kinescope form) ranks as one of the most complete and finest transcriptions of a '50s Broadway musical; I would argue that no stage revival will ever really be able to compete with it, if only for Russell's performance. The Columbia/Sony Broadway TV cast recording is not the soundtrack of the telecast, but was made in the studio two weeks prior to the program. In contrast to the first recording, it has the overture and complete opening number and is in stereo, but it features shorter versions of a couple of the songs. "Pass The Football," dropped from the telecast, is included on the disc, while the "What A Waste" trio, in the telecast a solo for leading man Sydney Chaplin (who already had a Tony Award for another Comden-Green New York musical, Bells Are Ringing), is shared on disc with Russell.

Russell sounds older on this disc but still grand (she sheds years when in front of an audience on the telecast). Chaplin's oddly produced, intonationally imperfect singing (he would follow with two more Jule Styne/New York shows, Subways Are For Sleeping and Funny Girl, the first with Comden and Green) is a matter of opinion; I find it distinctive and full of character. Sister Eileen here is Jacquelyn McKeever, who had had a lead in Broadway's Oh Captain! earlier that year; she's more operatic and somewhat less appealing than Adams. This studio set is completely enjoyable but less electric than the Broadway disc.

Wonderful Town has two London cast albums. The first, from the 1955 premiere, runs 17 minutes and includes seven songs; originally issued on 78s, it is part of the Box Office Recordings CD Americans In London (along with the brief London cast recordings of Love From Judy, Paint Your Wagon, and Pal Joey). The Ruth, Pat Kirkwood, was a very popular musical and revue star in England (and more of a genuine singer than Russell); Eileen was strong-voiced Shani Wallis, who, after roles in the London productions of Call Me Madam, Wish You Were Here, and Town, made an American career that included Nancy in the film of Oliver!. These recordings are charming.

The 1986 West End revival featured another popular English star, Maureen Lipman, most recently acclaimed for her Aunt Eller in the Royal National Theater Oklahoma!. On the First Night Records cast disc, Lipman is fun, but the orchestration was reduced for this fairly small-scale mounting, and it's a mediocre album.

JAY has continued its series of first-ever complete, double-CD recordings of classic titles with Wonderful Town. Most outstanding here are the sound and the superb conducting of John Owen Edwards, using the original Don Walker orchestration. The choice of leading lady is somewhat odd: One would think Karen Mason's debut in the series would have been in a role requiring the kind of heavy-duty singing she can provide; the role of Ruth was created for a star personality and comic actress with a vocal range of about five notes to which the score was carefully tailored. Mason is suited to the part, though, and it's nice to hear her deploy her handsome belt when she can. Rebecca Luker sings beautifully but lacks the vivacious personality for Eileen and sounds gloomy; Ron Raines sounds great as Robert, and Gregg Edelman is overqualified for "Football."

Almost an hour longer than earlier recordings, the new Town has the first preservation of the ballet "Conquering New York," the dance section of "Pass The Football," the "Quiet Girl" reprise, the entr'acte, and numerous incidental pieces. Because I love this show and score, I enjoyed hearing every drop, but a 79-minute, single disc could cover it; this set could have been so reduced by eliminating Ruth's short story vignettes (which are not really musical pieces, and here have Mason playing not only the three heroines but the other roles as well, which doesn't work), the bonus tracks (repeats of two numbers without their dialogue breaks), the orchestral reprise of "Swing!," and the exit music.

Good as Mason is, one misses the kind of high-powered star for whom the role was created; in addition to Russell on the kinescope, I have seen Elaine Stritch be sensational in the part at City Center (although Lauren Bacall at Westbury was not right). For all the additional material here, Town is a star vehicle, so either of the Russell recordings is ultimately more enjoyable.

Nor is the JAY set the last Town for awhile: Angel has already recorded another one starring Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald, and Thomas Hampson for release this year.

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