ON THE RECORD: 1970's Revivals of My Fair Lady and Candide

News   ON THE RECORD: 1970's Revivals of My Fair Lady and Candide
 
This week's column discusses the revival cast albums of the 20th anniversary production of My Fair Lady and the 1974 Hal Prince-Hugh Wheeler-Stephen Sondheim rewrite of Candide.
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MY FAIR LADY [Masterworks Broadway 82876-88392]
Twenty years after the opening of My Fair Lady, producer Herman Levin gathered together his surviving staff and mounted an authentic-as-possible reproduction of the original. This was not the first Broadway musical ever to be revived, nor was it the soonest revival of a show. Still, there was something special about it; a chance to see one of Broadway's longest-running, all-time classics in something closely approximating what had been. Without the participation of Rex, Julie or Stanley Holloway, of course; but as authentic as (and presumably better rehearsed than) the replacement company that closed on Broadway at the Broadway in 1962.

For people who had been too young to see the original, here we had the real My Fair Lady. For this viewer, though, all I could think was – well, what's so special about this? Especially when you could see A Chorus Line, still in its first year across the street, or for that matter Gwen and Chita in Chicago. My Fair Lady was far superior in score and book, arguably so. But the combined vision of director Moss Hart and set designer Oliver Smith seemed almost laughable compared to Bennett and Wagner, on the one hand, and Fosse and Walton on the other. I remember, specifically, being thrown by Fair Lady's flimsy traveler curtains with scenery painted on.

The material was superb, yes, but the production seemed positively antique. The cast was – what's the best way to describe it – adequate? Ian Richardson, the Henry Higgins of the occasion, was a high-grade British actor; he played Marat in Peter Brook's fabled Marat/Sade, no less. His acting of Higgins was a breeze, while his singing was more than okay. What he didn't have much of was flair, that Rex Harrison hat-plunked-on-his-head slouch. You got the impression of a nice fellow with impeccable diction. Christine Andreas had her fans, but I was not among them. She had prepared for Eliza Doolittle by appearing as the maid in a revival of Angel Street earlier that season. I found her unconvincing in the first, and she didn't win me over in the second.

George Rose gave his energetic all as Eliza's father, Alfred P. He somehow managed to steal the Best Actor Tony not only from Richardson but Jerry Orbach as well. In retrospect, Orbach's performance in Chicago is far more memorable. Robert Coote, from the original, reprised his Pickering; Freddy, that callow lad, was played by Jerry Lanning (best known as the grown-up Patrick Dennis in Mame).

The cast recording of the 20th anniversary production of My Fair Lady gives us a fine presentation of the score, with the advantage of 20 years of improved recording technology. The leads sing their roles perfectly satisfactorily. Even so, Rex and Julie have a stranglehold on our ears. On my ears, anyway; this is not the case with other legendary musicals I could name, for example Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza's South Pacific (the revival of which was reviewed in my prior column and which was released in tandem with My Fair Lady). This first-time-on-CD release of the 30-year-old twentieth anniversary revival is well-recorded and well-produced and well-reissued. But after one hearing, I am ready to go back to the original. The original meaning the 1956 mono recording [Sony SK 89997], which I prefer over the London cast recording (recorded in 1959 in stereo with the very same Rex and Julie).

CANDIDE [Masterworks Broadway 82876-88391]
Candide is something else again. The original 1956 production, coming seven months after the opening of My Fair Lady, was a disappointing failure. Not a disaster or catastrophe, certainly, as legend might have it. Rather, it pleased some and displeased others, which was not enough to support what was – after all – a comic operetta. I can't believe that people overlooked the quality of the score; with a shambles of a libretto, though, Candide couldn't make it through the winter.

Renovation attempts began soon enough, with a 1958 concert version (with revised book by Mike Stewart) resulting in a 1959 London mounting (with Stewart replaced along the way). Stewart's concert version resurfaced in the late 1960's, leading to yet another full-scale production in 1971. Directed by Sheldon Patinkin (of Chicago's Second City, and older cousin to you-know-who), the show managed three stops on its tryout but closed at the Kennedy Center. And that, it seemed, was the end of Candide.

But not so fast. The Chelsea Theatre Center, in Brooklyn, wanted to do a new, small-scale Candide and hired Hal Prince – just off A Little Night Music – to figure it all out. Prince, working with his Night Music librettist Hugh Wheeler, went back to Voltaire's original novel and came up with a light-hearted and breezy version (which Prince described as in the style of a cartoon). When new lyrics were required, Prince enlisted his frequent collaborator Stephen Sondheim. The new collaborators came with the assent of the original Candide authors, none of whom seemed to want to be involved in yet another version of their beloved perennial failure.

The Brooklyn Candide was an enormous success, resulting in talk of a Broadway transfer. The show did indeed transfer to Broadway, where – to make a long story of real estate and unions short – it was an enormous artistic success but, yet again, a financial failure. Which brings us to the original cast recording of the 1974 version, a two-LP set that has now finally been transferred to a two-CD set.

There is no comparing Candide recordings, at least in this listener's opinion. The original 1956 album is incomparable, thanks to a combination of performance and musical style. I needn't even mention the name of Barbara Cook; let's just say that Bernstein's score was written as grand opera bouffe, and works best when performed in a grand – but not too grand — style. While Lillian Hellman's 1956 libretto doesn't fit Bernstein's score, and while the enterprise suffered from a severe lack of focus (among other things), the 16 tracks on the original album [Sony SK 86859] are the best of all possible renditions. That's my opinion, any way, and every other Candide recording that comes along – and there are plenty of them – has been quickly filed away at the back of the shelf.

Let me add, though, that the 1974 version was a rambunctiously delightful theatre-going experience. Memorable and far more entertaining, I suspect, than the 1956 version. This happy memory did not impel me to listen to the 1974 LP, as it happens; I suppose I listened once, out of obligation, but nevermore. Listening to the new CD, I find that the delightful joys of the 1974 Candide are indeed present on the recording. There is no getting around the fact that this 13-musician Candide sounds far different than the original, and let us accept my contention that the 1956 version is the way the thing is meant to sound. Even so, this cut-down Candide is not as jarring as you might expect. Hershy Kay, who orchestrated both versions, managed to carry over many of the key instrumental solos and fills from 1956 to 1974. While the full texture isn't present – a given, without a full string section – we keep hearing familiar friends, as it were.

A great deal of the credit goes to musical director John Mauceri, who appears to have made most of the musical decisions. (Composer Bernstein, apparently seeing little life in a reduced Brooklyn Candide, seems to have given his blessings and stayed across the river.) The dialogue is preserved on this recording (produced by Thomas Z. Shepard), and Mauceri's band – four tiny groups, actually, ranged around the playing space – comes across as an integral part of the experience. Lewis J. Stadlen stars, playing Pangloss and four other roles. Mark Baker – not to be confused with Mark Linn Baker – is Candide, opposite the Cunegonde of Maureen Brennan. The principals are rounded out by Sam Freed, Deborah St. Darr and June Gable (as the one-buttocked Old Lady).

The 1974 Chelsea-Prince-Wheeler-Sondheim Candide doesn't supplant the original. How could it? But it works very nicely on its own terms. It did in the theatre, where it might arguably have been the most satisfactory stage Candide ever; and it does, happily, on the CD.

—Steven Suskin is the author of "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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