ON THE RECORD: A Dandy Fine and Dandy and Song of Norway

News   ON THE RECORD: A Dandy Fine and Dandy and Song of Norway This week's column discusses Kay Swift's long-lost 1930 musical Fine and Dandy and the first-time-on-CD transfer of the hit 1944 operetta Song of Norway.

FINE AND DANDY [ps classics ps-9419]
Kay Swift (1897-1993) is a near-forgotten figure in the annals of musical theatre. She is best known as the woman-George-should-have-married, on the pages of every Gershwin biography. Swift is also known to keen music listeners for three of the not-very-many show tunes she composed, the moody ballads "Can This Be Love?" and "Can't We Be Friends?" as well as one of the peppiest up-tunes of the first half of the last century, "Fine and Dandy." Few people can sing the last straight through, but it has served as a trusty standby for magicians for decades.

"Fine and Dandy" served as the title tune of Swift's one full Broadway musical. The 1930 Joe Cook vehicle disappeared after a 255-performance run; not bad at all, given that it opened within a year of the stock market crash. All that remained were a half-dozen published songs, evidence of a distinctive composer in the Gershwin vein with a strong melodic drive. If you could find those songs, that is.

Fine and Dandy itself was a clown vehicle of the old school variety. Center stage in these entertainments stood a funnyman, doing his well-loved business and singing a song or two (depending upon his capabilities). Ed Wynn, W.C. Fields, Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, the team of Clark and McCullough. There were juveniles and ingenues to deliver the score, plus lots of dancing; but the comic was king. A few of these vehicles survive on film, as early talkies. The best and best-known are the Marxian-transplants The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Joe Cook himself is also preserved on celluloid; just before heading into Fine and Dandy, Frank Capra filmed Cook's 1928 musical hit, Rain or Shine.

Like most of the performers above, Cook came to legit as a ticket-selling vaudeville headliner. His act featured an apparently side-splitting imitation of four Hawaiians. (He never got around to the fourth Hawaiian, for a variety of reasons). Cook was a knowing-but-innocent country-boy type, something of a cross between Ed Wynn and Will Rogers. His act featured outlandish stories that went on and on, keeping audiences rapt; juggling, cycling and other circus feats at which he was expert; and an assortment of Rube Goldberg like contraptions he would assemble on stage. (Sample materials: buzz saws, cream pies, Ferris Wheels, soda-water siphons, monkeys, and stooge Dave Chasen, who always got the brunt of the experiment. Chasen left the act during the Depression, went to Hollywood and became a renowned restaurateur.)

"Not just a good show, but a grand and glorious one," was John Mason Brown's verdict on Fine and Dandy, "one of the best musical comedies New York has seen in many a blue moon." Brooks Atkinson said, "Next to Leonardo da Vinci, Joe Cook is the most versatile man known to recorded time." Cook clearly provided much of his own material, which was reflected on the billing page ("Many Nonsensical Moments Created by Joe Cook"). Kay Swift has gone down in the record books as the first woman composer to write a complete Broadway musical. (Seventy years later, mind you, there still have not been very many, mind you.) But the record books are wrong. Alma Sanders, working with her lyricist-husband Monte Carlo — yes, Monte Carlo — had written at least five Broadway musical comedies before Fine and Dandy came along (and I have the sheet music to prove it). Vanity productions, it seems; I don't suppose that there's anyone alive who remembers the likes of Bye, Bye Barbara or Oh! Oh! Oh! Nurse. So let's just say that Swift — daughter of the music critic for the New York Evening Mail — was the first woman to compose a good Broadway musical.

Swift was engaged in a somewhat unique Broadway triangle. A conservatory trained pianist, Swift was the paid entertainment at an afternoon tea party in 1917 given by the Warburg banking family. Dashing scion Jimmy — not only a Warburg but a Loeb on his mother's side — met the piano player and married her the next year. Three children followed. In 1925, Kay and Jimmy Warburg gave one of those wild roaring twenties parties at their townhouse. George Gershwin, newly famous thanks to his Rhapsody in Blue, came in to entertain the society folks (which he seems to have done at the drop of a piano lid).

It was just one of those things, as Cole Porter might have said, or maybe not. Gershwin was what they used to call a dashing young bachelor. (Today we'd call him a neurotic young bachelor.) George and Kay began an affair which lasted, on and off, until his death in 1937. At the same time, George apparently encouraged Kay to become a professional songwriter — with her husband as lyricist! They all three wound up on the same psychiatrist's couch, although not apparently at the same time. At any rate, Gershwin placed Swift as rehearsal pianist on Rodgers & Hart's 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee. In 1928, three years into the affair, Swift and Paul James (the pen name for James Paul Warburg) wrote what seem to have been Swift's first pop songs.

Say When, an inconsequential musical comedy that lasted two weeks in 1928, had a scoreful of interpolations (including one item from then-Mayor James J. Walker) and a book by Marc Connelly (who seems to have switched to a pseudonym during the tryout). Swift and James were represented by a few songs, now lost.

The songwriting couple did far better the following year with "Can't We Be Friends?" a stunning interpolation into the Dietz and Schwartz revue The Little Show, which was easily one of the finest songs of the year (published by Max Dreyfus of Harms, Gershwin's publisher). Additional interpolations followed in two 1930 revues, in company with composers like Rodgers, Duke, Gershwin and Arlen. At this point, Mrs. and Mr. Warburg decided to write their first, and only, full musical comedy score (bankrolled by Warburg and his friends). To quote Ms Weber's liner notes, "Some people have a baby to try to save a marriage. My grandparents had a Broadway musical."

All this is beside the point, I suppose. Swift — who died ten years ago at the age of 96 — had been working with arranger-orchestrator Russell Warner on a reconstruction of Fine and Dandy. In 2001, novelist Katherine Weber — granddaughter to Swift and Warburg — brought the material to Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin's then-fledgling label ps classics. Swift was not unknown to Krasker, a keen musicologist and former archivist for the Ira Gershwin Estate. Krasker has produced such albums as Bounce, Floyd Collins, and solo albums by Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw. He got his start, though, with an adventurous series of reconstructions of Gershwin musicals.

Is Fine and Dandy, after all this, any good? And after 75 years, a Depression, two World Wars, and etc., does it hold up?

Yes, indeed. Musically interesting, brashly entertaining, and somewhat surprising. "Can This Be Love?" — like the earlier Swift-James "Can't We Be Friends," companion, one of the finest songs of its year — holds up extremely well. (For those of you who've never heard it, it fits right in with George & Ira's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and Duke & Yip's "April in Paris.") "Fine and Dandy" is as peppy as you'd like, although somewhat hampered by the lyric. (The version here, reassembled from the special material used by Cook, is somewhat choppy and not as strong as the pop version used in the sheet music.)

But it's the other numbers in this 14-song score that provide the surprise. Long lost songs like "Rich or Poor," "Starting at the Bottom," "The Jig-Hop," and especially "Let's Go Eat Worms in the Garden." Yes, "Let's go eat worms in the garden" — because "your man left you and turned you down, my gal gave me the runaround." What a knockout of a number! Swift writes in the Gershwin mode, not unexpectedly; but she is just as clearly in the realms of Youmans and Duke. However you wish to classify her, one thing is clear — she was an original, with strong melodic and rhythmic sensibilities.

Despite the acclaim for Fine and Dandy, Swift seemed to put her career on hold to stand by her man. Gershwin, that is. (She and Warburg finally divorced in 1934.) How strong a presence Swift played in George's five final musicals is unknown. While the general consensus is that George must have helped Kay with her writing, this new recording suggests the opposite. In some ways, Fine and Dandy points forward, musically, from Strike Up the Band (which George wrote between 1927 and 1930, during his early days with Kay) to Of Thee I Sing, Let 'Em Eat Cake and Pardon My English. Sitting here musing, I suddenly see a strong similarity between the first two measures of "Fine and Dandy" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." But no matter; let's just say that the musical part of the Gershwin-Swift relationship was mutually beneficial.

Professionally beneficial for Swift, no. While George was writing Porgy and Bess, she wrote a ballet for Balanchine's Ballet Theatre, Alma Mater. She also took occasional jobs, as staff composer at Radio City Music Hall in 1935-1936 and as supervisor of music for the 1939 New York World's Fair. But she came to be seen as the keeper of the flame, Gershwin wise. Her one subsequent Broadway score was for Cornelia Otis Skinner's one-woman survey of Paris '90 , which played 87 performances at the Booth in 1952. (The intriguing cast album [DRG 19034], with arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett, was favorably reviewed in this column in April 2003.)

The Fine and Dandy CD features impeccable musical handling from conductor/archivist Aaron Gandy and his orchestrators. Warner, who had worked with Swift, was joined by Larry Moore for the orchestrations. Warner and Moore are both especially adept at period reconstructions of vintage musicals; they know and seemingly cherish the style, with the score enlivened at every turn by delicious instrumental solos. (Only one of Hans Spialek's original charts survived, but I defy a listener to differentiate between the authentic and the new.) Gandy gives us a driving reading of the score, with especially clean playing and singing from the performers. The band is top notch — Krasker typically enlists strong bands for his recordings — and the singers are crystal clear.

Carolee Carmello, for example, in the role of Cook's girlfriend. (Cook married Alice Boulden, who originated the role.) Listen to Carmello's stunning delivery of "Can This Be Love?" "All through the night till I wake at early dawn," the lyric goes, to an ascending scale, as the song climaxes. "Night till" is a tricky juxtaposition; Carmello sings it and believes it and enunciates it, allowing the listener to simply sit back and feel it.

Gavin Creel, who did a fine featured job in Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, proves a highly capable juvenile lead with "Starting at the Bottom" and that song about the worms. Creel played the same role, more or less, in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and was equally likable on that occasion; but here he has authentic material, and he delivers it with authority. Jennifer Laura Thompson sings the ingénue, Andrea Burns energizes things in a role originated by the pre-Hollywood Eleanor Powell, and the aristocratic Anne Kaufman Schneider — here billed as plain Anne Kaufman — surprises us with a cameo. Mario Cantone plays what was formerly the starring role, but without Joe Cook's comic business has little to do other than sing half of the title tune.

The people at ps, reasonably and cannily, give us bonus tracks of four other Swift tunes, from the likes of Ann Hampton Callaway, Jack Donahue and Natalie Douglas. Thus we get a jazzy new rendition of "Can't We Be Friends?" from Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli (who have two sterling albums on the ps label).

All told, I am glad to report that this new CD of Fine and Dandy is indeed fine and dandy.

SONG OF NORWAY [Decca Broadway B00002471]
Song of Norway was not the last of the big old-time operettas, exactly; but by 1944, when it opened at the Imperial, it was already an out dated throwback to the Student Prince era of a generation before. Which might have helped account for Song of Norway's successful, 860-performance run, making it Broadway's longest-running traditional operetta ever. Audiences were war-weary and clearly not averse to the good old days; add in that Norway — the real country, not the musical comedy equivalent — was just then waging an heroic battle against the forces of evil. All of this combined to make Norway a healthy hit, running nearly twice as long as that season's nervy On the Town.

Robert Wright (born 1914) and George "Chet" Forrest (1915-1999) met in high school in Florida, joined forces in 1935 and headed to Hollywood. They found early success writing new songs — based on old music by folks like Tchaikowsky — for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy's 1937 version of Maytime. They did the same for The Firefly, giving the then still-living Rudolf Friml a new song hit, "The Donkey Serenade."

Edwin Lester, who founded the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in 1938, determined to move into original musicals (as opposed to revivals of old hits). Deciding to produce a new operetta from scratch, he signed Hollywood's Wright and Forrest to tackle Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Thus, Song of Norway. The show opened in Los Angeles in June 1944, and within ten weeks had transferred to Broadway.

Song of Norway was a big hit for Wright and Forrest, but it in some ways proved detrimental to their career. Their next musical, the Milton Berle vehicle Spring in Brazil, with music dreamed up solely by themselves, tanked in Chicago. This turn of events slotted them, for better or worse, as song-adaptors borrowing melodies from their betters. But giving credit, at least. Wright and Forrest had failures working with (or against?) the likes of Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Next came Alexander Borodin and his Kismet, another hit import from Ed Lester's West Coast operation. This costume operetta, and its two Hit Parade hits "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," apparently convinced the boys to stop with the classics already. But The Carefree Heart, from a comedy by Molière, collapsed in Cleveland; At the Grand, from Vicki Baum's soap opera-of-a-novel, folded in Frisco; and Kean, spearheaded by their Kismet star Alfred Drake, bombed at the Broadway.

Back to the semi-classics for Anya, a 1965 adaptation of Anastasia with themes from Sergei Rachmaninoff. Two weeks at the Ziegfeld, and that seemed to be the end of Wright and Forrest on Broadway. A Song for Cyrano, a Jose Ferrer-helmed adaptation of guess what, had a summer stock tryout in 1973, but that was just about it. Until At the Grand was unaccountably disembalmed after 31 years and — thanks to a Boston transfusion of six songs from Maury Yeston — finally made it to town as Grand Hotel. I've never had all that much enthusiasm for the work of Wright and Forrest. Kismet I find pleasurable, in a somewhat vulgar way. The boys attempted to transplant it to Timbuktu in 1978, stripping the show of its original charms. Timbuktu is long forgotten, while current events have put Kismet — "A Musical Arabian Night" — in limbo just now. ("Baghdad! Don't underestimate Baghdad!" goes one of the songs.") Song of Norway can be seen as Kismet without the sense of humor. For my money, Anya works the best. Musically, that is, though certainly not on stage. As for the Norway lyrics, they are of the "Dear / Let me hold you near / While we treasure / Every measure" variety. The orchestrations, by Lester's in-house music man Arthur Kay, are predictably overripe. Kay, who also conducted, did Kismet as well; he is not, under any circumstances, to be confused with orchestrator Hershy Kay, of Candide, 110 in the Shade and On the Twentieth Century. (There is peripheral evidence that Don Walker might have scored two of the most impressive numbers — his account book shows that he put in bills for "Freddy and His Fiddle" and "Strange Music" — but this bears further investigation.)

Top-billed Irra Petina — of Magdalena, Anya and, most memorably, Leonard Bernstein's Candide — is missing in action, replaced by Decca artist Kitty Carlisle (back before she got Hart). Lawrence Brooks and Helena Bliss play the romantic leads, with Robert Shafer — later of Damn Yankees — giving his all as Grieg's best friend.

The CD of Song of Norway is not without interest, naturally. This was Decca's second big-selling original cast album, following the prior year's Oklahoma! The liner notes helpfully tell us that this recording has already been given seven different releases — and that was prior to the advent of the CD! (The initial pressing of this CD contains an error — one track is included twice, another missing — that they are in the process of fixing.) The remastered Song of Norway certainly sounds far better than any versions that have come before, although sonic fiddling can't mask the fact that the orchestra in the opening moments of the album seems to be sight reading by candlelight on a stormy night.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.