ON THE RECORD: A lustrous Hairspray and Kern's Roberta

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A lustrous Hairspray and Kern's Roberta
Hairspray, Broadway's fluffiest new musical, offers a myriad of musical comedy pleasures. Chief among them, and central to the show's success, is the work of songwriter Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman. The music drives the story, the lyrics relate to plot and character. That might seem an obvious recipe for musical theatre, but I can't think of a recent musical that does it so artfully.

Hairspray, Broadway's fluffiest new musical, offers a myriad of musical comedy pleasures. Chief among them, and central to the show's success, is the work of songwriter Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman. The music drives the story, the lyrics relate to plot and character. That might seem an obvious recipe for musical theatre, but I can't think of a recent musical that does it so artfully.

In the opening number "Good Morning Baltimore," the teenaged heroine introduces us to her neighborhood. "There's the flasher who lives next door / There's the bum on his bar room stool." The flasher and the bum are cleverly colorful; but the lyricists have them wishing Tracy luck on her way to school, which adds a human touch. This is something Shaiman and Wittman do again and again throughout the score. Jokes and warmth, what a combination.

And these lyricists know how to be explosively funny. Hairspray features what might well be the deftest musical comedy lyrics since City of Angels, a dozen years ago. Here's this from daughter to mother in "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now": "You're the one who taught me how to 'twist and shout' / Because you shout non-stop and you're so twisted too!" This song is a gem, one of several in the score; driving along the Connecticut Turnpike, my five-year-old made me play it six times in a row. ("Again!" she exclaimed.) And it was fun, six times straight. Farewell, "Baby Beluga," and it's about time.

Shaiman has composed music for half a hundred films, but he started out in the theatre and he knows his stuff. He is also credited here for arrangements, which I suppose indicates that he not only did the dances and the sixties-steeped vocals but routined the whole thing. And this score sparkles. (Shaiman also served as producer of the CD.) Harold Wheeler, one of Broadway's best music men, did the orchestrations; Lon Hoyt is the music director. The show — in the relatively small-capacity Neil Simon Theatre — features an eccentric but effective 15-piece band: three keyboards, three guitars, two reeds, two brass, three strings and two percussion. This has been supplemented for the recording by five additional strings. Fittingly for a show with a strong beat, the drummer (Clint de Ganon) is noticeably good. "You Can't Stop the Beat," claims the irrepressible finale, and they're right.

The performances, all of them, are delightful. Marissa Jaret Winokur, a 20 something spitfire with a large voice and unlimited energy, dominates the album. But she is surrounded by fine performers. Kerry Butler, Matthew Morrison, Corey Reynolds, Laura Bell Bundy, Mary Bond Davis, Clarke Thorell, Linda Hart, and Jackie Hoffman all offer strong support. While directors are not typically praised for what you hear on a cast album, Jack O'Brien has done a spectacular job onHairspray — as is evident in the individual and collective performances. Co-star Harvey Fierstein is quite something onstage, although his singing voice is — shall we say — out of the ordinary. I can imagine that anyone listening to Hairspray with no knowledge of the show, and without the liner note photo of Fierstein decked out like a red-white-and-blueberry Dolly Gallagher Levi in his William Ivey Long special, might be a little befuddled. Still, it's quite a performance. Dick Latessa is given one chance to shine, in a duet with Fierstein called "(You're) Timeless to Me," and he milks it for all it's worth and then some.

Feel free to grab theHairspray CD while you're waiting for your tickets. And be prepared to play it again and again. ThisHairspray has a lustrous shine and bounce to the ounce, with extra-long hold.

ROBERTA/THE VAGABOND KING Decca Broadway 440 018 731
The career of Jerome Kern — and the course of the Broadway musical — changed markedly with the opening of Show Boat in 1927. This topic has been discussed at length elsewhere, and I surely don't need to go into it here. But Kern seemed to develop a new musical maturity overnight; while much of his earlier work was playfully inventive and tuneful, a new complexity appeared that resulted in 30 glorious songs over the next 12 years.

Oddly, though, Kern's nine musicals from Show Boat on were mixed. Sweet Adeline (1929), The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), and Music in the Air (1932) all had strong scores. Kern's final show, the ill-fated Very Warm for May (1939), also had some amazing songs (including one of his very finest). But two British musicals — Blue Eyes (1928) andThree Sisters (1934) — and the Civil War musical Gentlemen Unafraid (1938), which never reached Broadway, had only one memorable song between them. Mixed among these was Roberta (1933), a turgid affair meant to showcase the latest in women's fashions from Paree. The pre-Broadway title, in fact, was Gowns by Roberta.

The show underwent a typically troublesome tryout, with the director cashiered in Philadelphia. The director in question was the dictatorial Kern himself, so one can imagine the carryings on. The show limped into the New Amsterdam, where it managed to catch on — thanks to the combination of the latest in women's fashions from Paree, cut-rate tickets and the song hit "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Roberta made it through 295 performances.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is, indeed, a fine song. It was written in march tempo, as a theme song for an unproduced radio show. Kern, happily, remembered it and recycled it for Roberta. This despite a tortured lyric — "so I chaffed them and I gaily laughed" — from 60-year-old Otto Harbach. In an essay excerpted on the LP release of this album (but not reprinted in the CD liner notes) Harbach calls Roberta a play with music. "In Opera the characters are supposed to be a race of people who sing all their thoughts — and never speak. In Operetta and Musical Comedy they sometimes speak, and occasionally burst into song, presumably composing the melody and lyrics on the spur of the moment. In a Musical Play songs happen as they do in real life." So says Mr. Harbach, who rhymes "yesterdays" with "sequester'd days" and has his characters sing such lines as "Youth was mine / Truth was mine / Joyous, free and flaming life forsooth was mine." Oscar Hammerstein's mentor and early collaborator, Harbach would live another 30 years, but he never again reached Broadway.

The rest of the score is curious. (The orchestrations, which are unidentified, appear not to be Russell Bennett's originals.) "Yesterdays" and "The Touch of Your Hand" are both arresting, but don't quite make it to first rank Kern. "Lovely to Look At" — a fashion show ballad — does. It was not part of the original score, though. Kern wrote it for the 1935 Astaire Rogers film version, with a lyric from Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. (Fields wrote the lyric alone, but she was under joint contract to RKO with composer Jimmy McHugh so he shared credit.)

IfRoberta is less than legendary, it is for most listeners a totally new Kern score (with the exception of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"). And how often do you get to hear a totally new Kern score? Alfred Drake sings on eight of the twelve tracks, covering all the male roles. ("Don't Ask Me Not to Sing," incidentally, was a specialty for the up-and-coming comedian Bob Hope.) This is Drake at 30; the studio cast album ofRoberta was recorded in 1944, the year afterOklahoma! Paula Laurence gives a crisp rendition of three up-tempo, flirtatious numbers; Kitty Carlisle duets with Alfred on three serious songs, including "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Drake is also present on five of the eight tracks from Rudolf Friml's 1925 operetta hit The Vagabond King. But this is the stronger, more authoritative Drake of 1951, midway between Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet. Drake is supported by Mimi Benzell of the Metropolitan Opera (who was to visit Broadway in 1961 in Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey).

The Vagabond King is somewhat surprising — to me anyway — in the strength of the three song hits. "The Song of the Vagabond" ("To hell with Burgundy!") is truly rousing, even for someone with little affinity for operetta. "Only a Rose" and "Some Day" also come across quite nicely, despite their old-fashioned style. Jay Blackton is at the podium, and I suppose he is in good part responsible for the spirited showing of the score. Especially that full-throated rendition of "The Song of the Vagabond." This and a dozen Drake tracks and an assortment of all-but-forgotten Kern melodies make this Decca Broadway release of more than passing interest.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen.

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